Four Freedoms State Park opens its arms wider, starting today. Already heralded as New York City’s most serene retreat, the park extends itself to visitors previously unable to enjoy its pleasures in full. A project begins today.
By David Stone
Let’s build something beautiful… Four Freedoms opens its arms…
“Let’s build something beautiful,” Jessica Lappin recalls the commitment, but it wasn’t going to be easy.
Now president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, Lappin track record goes back more than a decade working in support of Four Freedoms. The above quote harks back to time spent learning from city council member Gifford Miller. She later succeeded him, but first, she helped frame the debate leading to the park.
As she recalls, Miller beat back bad ideas birthed by then governor George Pataki.
He earned the “Whacky Pataki” label here because his ideas ran contrary to everything intended for the park. Among brainstorms floating out of Albany were a big box store… Imagine the traffic cruising down Main Street… And a major tourist hotel.
Miller, then Lappin argued for a memorial to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his home state, and fortunately, they won the argument.
As council member, Lappin kicked in the first funding for design, and congresswoman Carolyn Maloney worked $500,000 for construction into the federal budget.
Now, in her seventh year on the board of the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy, Lappin appreciates what’s happening today at the south end of Roosevelt Island from a perspective few others have.
It was beautiful, but something was missing…
“I am so excited and honored to be here today,” Maloney told a small crowd at a cornerstone laying ceremony in April, 2012, but what I’ll always remember from that day was her genuine enthusiasm.
For her, this wasn’t just another of many speeches.
After sealing the cornerstone, we were invited to visit the project under construction. Four Freedoms opened its embryonic arms. Fresh trees were being planted along the meadows borders, and the meadow was more mud than grass.
FDR’s bust was brand new, so new they forbid photographing it. The PR wasn’t out yet.
I found myself walking alongside Maloney, who didn’t seem bothered by the mud sucking at her shoes. She was now a member of the minority in the House, and I couldn’t resist asking her.
“It must be difficult working in Washington, these days,” I said, expecting a sigh and slap at the majority.
But that’s not Carolyn Maloney.
“Not when I can do something like this,” she said, spreading her own arms wide, embracing the park.
But there’s more to come, and that’s what breaks ground today.
The “state’s stepping up” for accessibility…
“This work will improve accessibility to all parts of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park for all visitors,” said Leslie Wright, New York State Parks’s regional director.
“When finished later this spring, the renovated paths and the incline lift will ensure that everyone at every ability will have full use of this park dedicated to a great New Yorker. This is keeping with our goal that New York State Parks and Historic Sites are open to everyone. ”
New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation commissioner Erik Kulleseid and the Cuomo administration are all in with funding and planning.
Lappin’s colleague on the board, Eduardo Jany, a Roosevelt Islander, chimed in.
“As a Board member and a Roosevelt Island resident I am absolutely thrilled that we were finally able to get this done,” Jany said.
“The Board has worked very hard to move to make the park fully accessible, and we encountered a number of challenges along the way. None the less we are there now and it makes me truly happy that in the spirit of FDR those 22 steps are no longer a barrier and anyone can access every corner of this Park which to me is the crown jewel of NYC.”
Something missing: Why Four Freedoms opens its arms today…
Not long after opening, awareness of Four Freedoms Park’s shortcoming emerged.
As Lappin remembers, “Although we stayed pretty true to Lewis Kahn’s original design, there was not enough attention to design for accessibility, then.”
Physically challenged visitors were unable match the experiences of others. The monumental steps, the entry point for the park’s core, gently sloped meadow, wasn’t accessible.
Late in 2016, Four Freedoms Conservancy began talking with city officials about changes needed. Four and a half years from talk to shovel ready seems like a long stretch.
But in the world of government, especially local government, that’s rocket fast.
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“Rocket fast, efficient and all parties satisfied,” says Conservancy CEO Howard Axel.
“This is a great example of a win win win, multi-party public-private partnership. This is good government at work, a lesson from and living legacy of FDR’s governorship and presidency.”
“I’m thrilled we’re at this point and the state’s stepping up. It’s the type of thing where government should play a big role, showing how to do it and paying for it.”