ELMHURST PK. GROWS
Working To Replace Tanks With Greenspace
More than a decade ago, while the Elmhurst gas tanks still towered over the neighborhood, it was hard for most people to imagine that the structures would one day be replaced by a park filled with rolling hills and winding paths.
But today, what was once inconceivable to many residents is inching closer toward becoming a reality, as the Parks Department continues its development of the six-acre site located off the corner of Grand Avenue and 79th Street into a passive park long sought by the community.
Currently in the second of three phases, the project is still several months away from completion, as contractors continue to create a playground and install various amenities including sprinkler equipment, lampposts and asphalt pathways.
Though it currently looks more like a construction site than a park, the Parks Department’s Queens commissioner, Dorothy Lewandowski, indicated that a large portion of the $20 million park will be ready and open to the public sometime next year, on budget and near schedule.
Lewandowski and several others involved in the construction of Elmhurst Park led the Times Newsweekly on a tour of the site on Monday, Aug. 16. Among those who took part in the tour were Parks Department designers Helen Ogrinz and Nancy Prince; manager Eileen Connolly; project residents Arthur Burgess and Tyler McLeete; Steven Rizzo and Mike Ciavatta of William A. Gross Construction.
For most of the 20th century, the Elmhurst gas tanks were used by Brooklyn Union Gas, then by its successor, KeySpan, to store natural gas used by local homes and businesses. They also became an unofficial landmark for radio and television traffic reports regarding the nearby Long Island Expressway.
When modern technology rendered the tanks obsolete, KeySpan dismantled the twin tanks in 2002. Their disappearance from the Elmhurst community sparked a debate as to what would take their place.
Originally, KeySpan intended to sell the property to The Home Depot for the construction of a new store. This led to community protests and campaigns launched by local civic groups who called on the city to take control of the site for the creation of a new park.
After years of negotiation, the city agreed to step in, and in 2005, Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to the Elmhurst site to accept the deed for the property from KeySpan CEO Robert Catell for the agreed-upon price of $1. The property was then given to the Parks Department in order to develop a new park at the location.
Working with a ‘blank slate’
At the time, the six-acre site was flat and lined with gravel installed by KeySpan after completing decontamination efforts following the dismantling of the tanks. “We were given a blank slate,” Lewandowski said, noting that the Parks Department had a rare opportunity to build a park from scratch and according to the needs and desires of the community.
“When we do cut the ribbon, the local community will be thrilled with the results,” Lewandowski said. “We have truly created a beautiful neighborhood park out of the rubble left from the tanks.”
Based on the input provided by residents and recommendations from Parks Department designers, the first phase of the project began in 2007. The commissioner noted that the first phase focused primarily on contouring the land, following a practice first developed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park, as a way to give a visitor the sense that the park is larger than its actual size. Grass, trees and shrubs were also planted around the site.
Once the first phase was completedly, Lewandowski stated, the site was left inactive for many months. Though some residents believed that the project had hit some sort of snag, she indicated that the stoppage was part of the plan, as the pause allowed the newly-contoured land to settle uninterrupted.
The Parks Department began the second phase of the Elmhurst Park project in August 2009, focusing on the amenities of the park itself. Among them is the creation of a “woodland seating area” on the northeastern end of the park close to Grand Avenue.
The section is surrounded by the only trees on the property which survived not only the tanks but also KeySpan, which was taken over by National Grid years after relinquishing the property to the city. Lewandowski stated that the seating area will serve as a quiet spot for residents of all ages to rest and take in nature.
Next to the seating area is a large boulder excavated several years ago at a construction site in Fort Greene which was subsequently provided to the Parks Department. The borough commissioner noted that the 10-ton, 400 million-year-old rock became something of a theme for the development of other areas of Elmhurst Park, as designers brought in similar boulders and large stones to build the playground.
Veterans memorial, playground
Also included in the second phase is the construction of a fountain area for children. Park planners noted that fountain sprinklers will be powered through an underground water recycling system in which the water used will be re-chlorinated and recirculated.
Part of the sprinkler area will be turned off at night and during cooler weather and can be used as a stage for small concerts and performance artists, Lewandowski said. The area faces a large sloped hill that will be lined with grass, allowing visitors to sit and enjoy performances that take place.
The hill itself is also topped by a brick area that has been reserved for the creation of a memorial to Queens veterans of the Vietnam War, the commissioner said. The Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 32 has reached an agreement with the Parks Department to develop the monument; the organization is currently in the midst of raising funds for the design and construction of the tribute.
Children from around the community will also have their own place to play with a playground divided into three separate areas for toddlers, elementary and middle school-age students. Among the features are a climbing unit as well as a play area powered by various gears and levers pulled by the youngsters themselves.
A larger hill was built on the southern end of the property near the 57th Avenue gate. This will serve as a prime sledding spot for local children during the winter months, according to park planners. It was noted that the hill was developed in an effort to prevent children from using a steep embankment along the right-of-way of the Long Island Expressway near 74th Street.
Youths will also have a small synthetic turf soccer field on the southern end of the park. Though not equipped to standard soccer dimensions, Lewandowski stated that the area can be used by local youth soccer groups for practice and pickup games.
A small maintenance building is also being developed on the 57th Avenue side of the park to house equipment. It will also serve as the headquarters for Parks Department staff assigned to parks located in the confines of Community Board 4.
In all, 500 trees of all types and varieties were planted around the property. A full irrigation system is also being installed to water the lawns and keep them green.
Lewandowski noted that the second phase of the project is on track to be completed by this fall. The third phase involves the development of the comfort station, which has a circular design evoking that of the tanks which once stood on the grounds.
The Parks Department is currently looking for a community organization to become a “friend” of the park through the Partnership for Parks. The organization would be responsible for helping to keep the site well-maintained and clean all year round.