CENTRAL PARK — A controversial plan to redesign Central Park's Cherry Hill moved forward Monday, despite criticism that the makeover will turn the popular plaza into a parking lot.
The city's Design Commission voted to approve the Central Park Conservancy's $1.4 million remake of Cherry Hill, a quiet spot at 72nd Street where visitors gaze out at Central Park's lake and enjoy an ornate fountain. The circular plaza was originally a scenic turn-around for carriages and the burbling fountain was a watering hole for horses.
The commission's vote clears the way for construction to start on the redesign this fall, with completion expected by next spring, said conservancy spokeswoman Dena Libner.
Cherry Hill lookout point was redesigned in the 1980s, but the conservancy says it needs another overhaul to bring it in line with park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's original vision for the space.
The conservancy wants to level the plaza, which now has three different elevations, and resurface it with gray stone meant to resemble the plaza's original gravel surface. The plan also calls for new landscaping and more benches.
Preservation groups Landmark West! and Defenders of the Historic Upper East Side slammed the redesign, calling it unnecessary and wasteful.
Some worried the new design seemed to be an attempt to turn the plaza into a parking lot for food trucks.
There are no plans to bring food trucks to Cherry Hill, Libner said. The Parks Department sought proposals earlier this year for "Victorian-era themed" food carts for the plaza, but dropped the idea after no satisfactory bids were received, Libner said.
The conservancy tweaked its proposal in response to some of the public criticism. It offered to keep the red brick surrounding the fountain, which one advocacy group had argued was an element that "set the fountain apart from the rest of the concourse," said Libner.
However, the Design Commission rejected that idea and asked the conservancy to use gray stone instead.
Cristiana Pena, senior director of preservation at Landmark West!, said it was "disappointing" that the Design Commission ignored the suggestions of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, which unanimously rejected the bulk of the redesign because commissioners felt Cherry Hill's existing look was already compatible with the park's historic design.
"A well-functioning, well-designed and historically relevant layer of Cherry Hill — and Central Park's — evolution will be unnecessarily lost," Pena said in an email.
Pena also said the redesign runs counter to the city's longterm sustainability goals, because it will discard brick paving that's in perfectly good shape. The conservancy says it's replacing the paving material with a sustainble, porous material that allows for better drainage.
Libner said the redesigned concourse will also be more user-friendly for all park visitors, including horse-drawn carriages, pedicabs, cyclists and wheelchair users.
The conservancy made pedestrians' "visual experience" the top priority in the redesign, an aspect that was lost in the 1980's revamp, Libner said. Walkers will have a separate, defined path where they can view the lake.
"It really enhances the relationship that people on the concourse are able to feel between themselves and the rest of the park, particularly the lake," Libner said. "We found a way to evolve for the sake of our visitors and preserve Olmsted and Vaux's original intent."