Volume 75, Number 5 | June 22- 28, 2005

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Canal Park is nearly complete and is expected to open within a few weeks.

Another one Moses didn’t win: Canal Park is reborn

By Josh Rogers

Maybe good things do come to those who wait — if you have 85 years or so.

Located at the west end of Canal St., Canal Park, a rebuilt and almost-forgotten space, will open within a few weeks.

The triangular park was closed “temporarily” in 1920 to construct the Holland Tunnel. What was supposed to be a four-year operation by the New York and New Jersey Bridge and Tunnel commissions (precursors to the Port Authority) almost became permanent in 1930 when “Power Broker” Robert Moses, ironically a former Parks commissioner, decided to keep the park closed in the hopes of building an elevated Canal St. highway leading to the Manhattan Bridge, according to Richard Barrett, one of the leaders of the Canal West Coalition.

Barrett’s group and the Tribeca Community Association sued the state Department of Transportation six years ago over a plan to change the traffic patterns near the West Side Highway and Canal St. The residents discovered the place where they were used to seeing parked garbage trucks was legally still a park. The state agreed to pay to rebuild the park in 2000 as part of a settlement with residents — who like the results.

“I think he did a great job,” Barrett said of Allan Scholl, a landscape architect for the city’s Parks Department. “The material, the plantings — it’s great.”

Heather Sporn, deputy director of the state Department of Transportation’s Route 9A Project, said while the park grew out of a lawsuit, there was no thought about skimping on the details.

“If you’re going to build a park, you got to do it right,” said Sporn, who added she’s a landscape architect and “sympathetic to parks.”

The $2 million park sits in the middle of a street drivers use to go from the West Side Highway to the Holland Tunnel. The triangular park was lengthened so that Washington St. motorists can no longer travel across Canal St. Pedestrians crossing at the point where Canal St. widens by splitting into a fork — Washington St. — now have a safe island in the middle.

“That intersection was a nightmare,” Barrett said. “It’s still bad during rush hour, but it’s much more ordered. [The park] gives a cue to motorists that people are equally important. They are better behaved.”

Patrick O’Rourke, owner of Big Apple Lights, said he’s happy he and his 12 workers will have a park.

“The trees will cut down the wind in the winter and visually it helps with the general feeling here,” he said. His storefront is covered in graffiti and, he said, now that there is a park, he plans to fix up the building’s front.

Several luxury condos have opened near the park in recent months and more are under construction.

Caroline Aim moved to the neighborhood several months ago and plans to open a small gourmet food shop, The Tomato Store, across the street from the park. “Nobody here has anywhere to shop or to walk,” she said. She and her partners plan to open the store in a few weeks and think the park may help business. “People will cross [Canal St.] more.”

The new park is 2/3 of an acre and has benches, a mix of evergreens, flowers, perennials and trees, including metasequoias and lindens.

King James II established the park in 1686 and it underwent several changes through the centuries. Barrett, who has researched the history, said the area used to be submerged at high tide and at one point the park was drained and was known as Lispernard Meadows.

The park was a viewing garden, but in 1888, architects Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons added a path in the middle. Barrett said one of the things he likes so much is that the new park’s winding path is reminiscent of the 19th-century design.

Barrett and neighbors, including musicians Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, are part of the Canal Park Conservancy formed to help with annual maintenance costs. The group has raised $100,000 and plans to hire a part-time gardener for about $20,000 a year. This will mean an even better park in the future, Barrett said. “It’ll grow larger and lusher over time.”

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