Soon, there’ll be a new and improved way to enter Van Cortlandt Park. While news like that might typically be good, some residents — especially those who neighbor the area near West 261st Street and Broadway — would be perfectly fine leaving it just the way it is.
The city’s parks department plans to create what they describe as a more inviting entrance at the northwest edge of this storied urban oasis in the Bronx. It’s part of the Van Cortlandt Park master plan — a set of initiatives aimed at improving the park over the next 20 years prepared in 2014 by former parks principal urban designer Charles McKinney.
It would include new benches, greeting gardens, new signage — and if all goes according to plan — safer pathways making it easier for park users to access other Vannie trails.
One of the new entrance’s main goals is to bring more people to the park while reducing unwanted activity like barbecues, loud music, underage drinking and smoking marijuana, and homeless encampments.
“We always say that good, positive elements will weed out negative elements,” parks borough commissioner Iris Rodriguez-Rosa said. “If you have positive activity going on — residents sitting there, programs or activities the community is accepting of — then any kind of negative elements will hopefully dissipate.”
While it’s physically possible to enter the park at the proposed location now, it’s not very welcoming, said Christina Taylor, executive director of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, which spearheaded the effort to secure $250,000 to construct the proposed entrance.
“We’re talking about an empty field, a little cutout of the forest with just a couple tree plantings,” Taylor said.
But now that the parks department has decided to tackle the initiative in-house, rather than commission a capital project, it should be much cheaper — one, Rodriguez-Rosa said, could be done for less than $15,000.
“I believe we have the capability and talent,” she said. “It’s not an improvement that requires extensive capital development. Capital projects take a lot of design and procurement. This is a spruce-up beautification.”
For the most part, residents see the proposal as “good news,” said Michele March, who for the last five years has lived in one of the buildings across from where the new entrance would be. There’s a tangible sense of community in this pocket of Riverdale, and many of March’s neighbors have lived here for much longer than she has — some for as many as 40 years.
What March doesn’t want, however, is for the parks department to completely overhaul the area in a way that would detract from its natural beauty.
“We really monitor and adore and take care of this park — even if it’s just visually,” she said.
“We’ll pick up bottles and stuff. This is like our backyard. I love that out of 1,100 acres of the Van Cortlandt Park consortium, this space of maybe three acres is perfect, unspoiled for small children, families. You won’t step in anything because everybody picks up after their pets.”
She’s also concerned the plan to eliminate barbecues and loud music might backfire. New benches, tables and gardens might attract even larger, more rowdy gatherings — as well as people using the adjacent wooded area as a public restroom.
“We have no bathrooms here,” March said. “So if a hundred, or 500, people come and they stay all day, where are they relieving themselves? Let’s be honest. They’re going in the woods. It’s unsanitary.”
As for who’s making all the mischief in the park, neither Community Board 8 parks and recreation chair Bob Bender or Taylor could say definitively, although residents claim the troublemakers are not their neighbors.
Deputy Inspector Terence O’Toole of the 50th Precinct, however, said the “negative activity” they describe is nothing serious.
“People go there, drink and smoke marijuana, but it’s not outrageous,” he said.
After receiving complaints about a small homeless encampment in the area, the precinct sent in an outreach unit to the site. When it went back a second time, the encampment was gone.
Even with their concerns about the impact the new entrance might have on that section of the park and the surrounding neighborhood, residents are willing to meet the city halfway, March said.
“We’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll try it,’” she said. “But if it doesn’t go well and it draws people that don’t respect the space, they (the parks department) are going to hear about it.
“We’ll play ball, but if the ball doesn’t go right, we’re going to come out fighting about this.”
Initial groundwork, like laying down bench slabs, is slated for later this month, Rodriguez-Rosa said, with the hope of starting planting next spring.
“Don’t change the look and feel overall, because we’re really happy with it the way it is,” March said. “We like the nothingness of it.”