St. Mary’s needs overhaul, residents say

Renovating one playground comes nowhere near all the work St. Mary's Park needs, say local residents,

Renovations are being planned for one playground at St. Mary’s Park, but much more is needed, say residents and one prominent non-profit.

Mayor’s proposed park upgrades don’t include it

A small amount of city funding to fix a playground at St. Mary’s Park has opened up a conversation about fixing the South Bronx’s biggest park, for the first time in years.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to fix small city parks last October, he left out St. Mary’s because it was too big to fit the model.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes Mott Haven, announced last year she would allocate $1.5 million to renovate one park playground on St. Ann’s Avenue.

But at a March 4 meeting hosted by the Parks Dept. at the Heketi Community Charter School on Concord Ave. and 144th Street, residents were encouraged to share all of their ideas about the park’s future.

“This is about visioning, and we don’t have any money anyway, so think big,” Jennifer Gardner, a senior project planner for the Parks Department, urged residents in the audience.

Ideas for renovating the playground included adding a double “swirly” slide, more water fountains for kids to play in during the summer and replacing tennis courts with different features. Residents chimed in that soccer was much more popular than tennis, and urged that a soccer pitch be added. Other ideas included an outdoor pool, an underground bar that would be reachable only by an old-fashioned railroad pump car, an urban farm and an amphitheater.

But some said St. Mary’s has pressing issues that must be contended with first. The baseball field bleachers have no seats, pavement is cracked on many paths, hills erode during rain storms and garbage cans overflow during warmer months.

“We all agree that this park could really use some TLC,” Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said at the meeting.

Several attendees also worried that illegal activities are common at the park.

“Safety is a big concern,” said Liz Flores, whose daughter attends Heketi. “You have people who are not so wholesome,” she said.

Community Affairs Officer Hector Espada of the 40th Precinct warned against walking through the park after dark.

“It’s a safe park. Of course a lot of activities happen there during nighttime when people shouldn’t be taking that route to either go home or try to get to their destination,” he said.

Since the park was built in the late 1800s, its 35 acres of rocky hills and winding paths have provided an escape from urban congestion for generations of Bronxites. The recreation center is one of the city’s busiest. Residents from the buildings that surround the park maintain a strong attachment to St. Mary’s.

“I lived down the street and looked at St. Mary’s Park and it’s a better view than if I had a Fifth Avenue apartment,” said Jimmy Fairbanks, a longtime resident.

The $1.5 million playground renovation, scheduled for completion in 2017, is the first step in the long process of restoring St. Mary’s to its former glory.

“The park is large, there’s a lot of upgrades that are needed,” Council Speaker Mark-Viverito told the Herald. “So it’s going to be great to hear what comes out of this conversation, and to see what we can do.”

Mark-Viverito said she hopes to allocate an additional $1.5 million in capital funding later this year.

The New York Restoration Project, a non-profit organization that works to restore neglected city parkland, is working on an initiative to revive a network of open spaces in Mott Haven and Port Morris it calls the Haven Project. The group says the plan will be completed later this year. It hopes to show that improvements to the physical environment, such as parks, would help lower disease rates and related health care costs.

City Councilman Mark Levine of Manhattan, who chairs the parks committee, has proposed adding more than $200 million to the Parks Department budget for revitalizing mid-sized parks, which would include St. Mary’s.

“St. Mary’s really is just a perfect example of the challenges and potential of mid-sized parks and I think would be at the top of anyone’s priority list as we tackle this problem,” he told the Herald.