New Parks Sprout Around New York

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

If New York appears a little greener this summer, it is no mirage.

New parks are coming to life across the city, many courtesy of new apartment complexes, which, in addition to the usual extras, are offering swaths of switch grass and swamp oaks, waterfalls and fountains, benches and boulder-lined paths.

And although these nods to nature are created by developers and are on the grounds of condo and rental buildings, you won’t need to have a pricey apartment there to enjoy them. In a change from the residents-only courtyards of the past, these open spaces are truly open and, despite their private roots, can be used freely by the public.

“It’s a different kind of amenity,” said Lisa Switkin, a senior principal at James Corner Field Operations, the landscape design firm behind several new parks, including Domino Park, which is opening this month in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at a former sugar factory.

“It’s not like they’re your parks,” Ms. Switkin said, as they are not the exclusive preserve of owners and renters. “But, wow, you do still have parks right outside your door.”

Typically mandated by zoning laws, these private-public hybrids are an effort to balance the demands of the real estate industry with the needs of the public, especially where projects have the potential to significantly alter the landscape.

And the upside is notable. From the Far West Side of Manhattan to Fort Lee, N.J., velvety, shared lawns are being created where they were once a rare sight, and in some cases, even helping to turn a relatively remote area into a destination. Yet critics say some of the parks, like some in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, are too small and fussily designed to be of much use if a few friends just want to kick around a soccer ball. Ironing out the details of who maintains and finances the upkeep can also cause delays and potential hiccups.

They do seem good for business, though. “The park is a huge part of it,” said Ryan Serhant, the associate broker with Nest Seekers International who is handling sales at 550 Vanderbilt Avenue, a condo in Brooklyn’s sprawling Pacific Park complex, which is slowly adding flora.

“Buyers are kind of buying in to the future of the greenery,” he added, “which is pretty cool.”

While city-run parks and playgrounds tend to have a shared visual vocabulary, these new parks have distinctive elements, as most are being created by a different developer.

Domino Park, an inventive six-acre, quarter-mile stretch on the East River by the Williamsburg Bridge, for example, has a new road cutting through it. Central Park may have banned cars this spring, but Domino’s offering will encourage them.

Credit...Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Inserting the road, a continuation of nearby River Street, was voluntary and not required by zoning, according to Two Trees Management, the developer of the Domino site, a work-in-progress with offices and apartments planned for five buildings on an 11-acre site. First to open was 325 Kent Avenue, a 522-unit rental that is 80 percent leased, said David Lombino, a Two Trees’s managing director.

“A busy street is meaningful, a New York thing,” Mr. Lombino said. “This is not a club, so you want interactions between tenants and the public.”

Planted with salt-tolerant swamp white oak trees and sweet pepperbush plants, Domino Park also offers more curious attractions. Corkscrew-shaped metal shafts, once used for stirring sugar, are clustered like a grove of saplings. Other relics discovered on site and preserved include two large aqua-colored cranes that used to haul cargo from ships.

Not every area encourages passive contemplation. There is also a volleyball court, added in part to honor a sport popular with Williamsburg’s longtime Latino population. Danny Meyer will open Tacocina, a small takeout restaurant serving tacos, made with locally raised beef, and tequila cocktails. For-profit ventures like this used to be frowned upon in public parks. But as the financial burden of caring for parks has shifted to the private sector from the city, restrictions on businesses are less common, say developers, real estate brokers and designers.

“We wanted to have lots of things for people to do. We didn’t want this just to feel like the backyard of some new development,” said Ms. Switkin, whose firm also landscaped the privately operated High Line park, which has been a major catalyst for development and tourism.

Proponents of private parks say they can be produced more quickly and cheaply than their public counterparts. Domino, for example, cost “tens of millions of dollars,” a figure that would have been double had the city built it, said Mr. Lombino, adding that Two Trees is also on the hook for the park’s 15-person maintenance staff.

But even if developers want to brand parks as their own, there are limitations, as the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation retains control over details. One example can be seen at the Greenpoint, a block-size complex from Mack Real Estate Group and Palin Enterprises.

Facing the East River, near building facades vivid with graffiti, the complex offers 95 condos and 358 rentals, 140 of them reserved for those at certain income levels. On June 1, 69 of the condos had sold, at an average of $1,600 a square foot, a project spokesman said; the rental office opens in a couple of months.

The Greenpoint’s park, on the river, features a playground, a large lawn and about three dozen trees, plus sparkly recycled-glass paving stones. But the park does not have the curved benches originally specified by the designer Abel Bainnson Butz, said John Butz, a firm principal.

Parks Department workers, who will maintain Greenpoint’s greensward with condo funds, were concerned that the sinuous boards would be tough to replace, Mr. Butz said, explaining that he ultimately substituted straight benches. City rules also dictate that parks be completed before residents move in; that completion is supposed to happen this summer.

The new crop of parks can seem relatively small. The Greenpoint’s, for instance, measures about two-thirds of an acre. (Union Square Park, in Manhattan, is six and a half acres.)

Smaller parks like this, especially when coupled with the presence of cyclists and joggers, can seem like little more than fancy paths, said Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates, a 15-year-old watchdog group. “We’re not building Riverside Parks anymore, but transportation networks,” said Mr. Croft, who added that he wished there were more fields for baseball and soccer.

The maintenance model can also be risky, he said. Though developers are often required to set aside money for emergencies, it is hard to know who might pay for groundskeeping if a developer were to go belly up, Mr. Croft said. Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is dotted with apartment buildings that must pay for the park’s upkeep, struggled during the recession to drum up funds, he pointed out.

“Relying on development to pay for things that had been the government’s responsibility is really dangerous,” he said.

While the residents of these new parklike developments will only have to step outside their front doors to enjoy flower beds and chaise longues, will people come from farther away to hang out?

Park advocates believe they will, because the leafy retreats are revitalizing once-bleak industrial areas that were long off limits. Still, it is sometimes unclear how the word will get out.

For instance, the park at the Greenpoint is almost a nonissue on the condo’s website. It is not listed as either an amenity or a neighborhood highlight. The only mention is in a section about the building’s views, where the park is referred to as a “grassy esplanade.”

“If we are not marketing it enough, then shame on us,” said Richard Mack, the chief executive officer of Mack Real Estate. “I don’t think it was a conscious omission.”

Even when residents are aware of proposed parks, they can be exasperated by the pace of construction, as at Brooklyn’s Pacific Park, which has added just a fraction of its planned eight acres in more than a decade.

Those acres, part of a vast mixed-use project from Greenland Forest City Partners originally known as Atlantic Yards, seem promising enough. With a master plan by the architect Frank Gehry, the park is to include lawns, fountains, a basketball court and a bocce court threaded among apartment buildings along Atlantic Avenue in Prospect Heights.

The park, designed by Thomas Balsley Associates, was supposed to be completed by 2016, according to an initial timeline for the project approved in 2005.

But so far, less than an acre has opened. (Similarly, only 1,242 apartments have been constructed, in four buildings, a project spokeswoman said, versus the 6,430 planned.)

What exists now is split between two skinny and unconnected slices that opened this year. One, behind 535 Carlton Avenue, a 298-unit affordable rental building, offers metal chairs and tables. The other, at 550 Vanderbilt, which has sold 222 of 278 units since 2015, is graced with a low waterfall.

But on a recent afternoon, on the other side of a green construction fence, all there was in an area designated for parkland was a desolate jumble of rebar, concrete barricades and trucks.

“The community has been very frustrated because the open space hasn’t been added in line with development,” said Anurag Heda, who is president of the Dean Street Block Association, a neighborhood advocacy group, and whose home faces the undeveloped park site. The need for more open space is clear, he added, noting that the Dean Playground in Prospect Heights is crowded from morning to night with child care groups and sports classes.

Similarly, on the Far West Side of Manhattan, Hudson Yards has been slow to take root. Just three blocks of the planned six-block ribbon of greenery known as Hudson Park and Boulevard are now open, a status that has been unchanged for years. Often empty benches near daffodil beds and shallow pools seem to await visitors.

Next spring, though, will see the opening of additional parkland and the Vessel, a tall interactive sculpture at Hudson Yards’ center, said a spokeswoman for the Related Companies, a Hudson Yards developer.

Also boosting West Side parkland next year will be Waterline Square, a nearly three-acre spread on West 61st Street by the Hudson River encircled by three condo-and-rental towers.

The park, developed by GID Development Group and designed by Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, will feature a playground, fountains and paths shaded by trees.

For developers, parks can help win support for large-scale projects, said Victor Cividini, a senior vice president at SJP Properties, which beat out other proposals to develop a long-dormant site in Fort Lee, N.J.

Mostly completed there is the Modern, a rental complex with a pair of 46-story skyline-dominating towers by the George Washington Bridge. Squeezed between them is an elaborate 1.7-acre park, with a pond crossed by an arcing footbridge and a pergola-shaded sitting area. The park and an adjacent restaurant will open this winter, Mr. Cividini said.

“I certainly believe it helped us,” said Mr. Cividini, noting that the park, despite currently being piles of dirt and rocks, has also energized leasing.

The first 450-unit tower, which opened in 2014, is now almost entirely rented, he said. This month, the Modern will begin leasing its second tower, which also has 450 units. Studios start at about $1,720 a month and one-bedrooms at $2,630, although concessions are available.

It is Mr. Cividini’s hope that the Modern’s park — a $12 million piece of a $500 million project designed by Melillo and Bauer Associates — will provide space to help the borough unwind.

“Some residents of Fort Lee love our towers,” he said. “Some residents of Fort Lee may not. But we try to do what we can to help the community.”

Landlords and developers have, of course, created public parks before. The trend is probably most associated with the office-building developers who created parks in exchange for extra stories starting in the 1960s. The small, and often unwelcoming, seating areas speckle the city’s business districts.

Residential examples exist too, among them Saint Vincent’s Triangle on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village, which the Rudin Management Company developed as part of the Greenwich Lane condo project.

For $13 million, Rudin turned a former loading dock for the hospital into a park lined with grassy mounds and lampposts, where visitors loll on stone steps. A highlight is a white-metal tribute to AIDS victims paired with Walt Whitman’s poetry.

Keeping the park clean falls to condo residents, to the tune of $150,000 a year, which is billed through common charges, said John Gilbert, Rudin’s chief operating officer.

Greenwich Lane, which involved the conversion of the former Saint Vincent’s Hospital, was highly controversial. But Mr. Gilbert said the park was offered in line with the company’s longtime altruism and not as an olive branch.

“It was first and foremost for the community,” he said. “And obviously the people who brought apartments there would also benefit.”

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