Real State

Central Park Sidewalk Restoration Is Fixing Bumps for Accessibility

The sidewalks surrounding Central Park were designed to help you escape.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects behind the landmark, proposed in their 1858 planning document to plant a plush line of trees to separate the sidewalk and the road, “for the purpose of concealing the houses on the opposite side of the street, from the park, and to insure an umbrageous horizon line.”

Hexagonal asphalt tiles were placed and granite blocks were laid out in intricate herringbone and basket-weave patterns, forming the distinctive path that is now traversed by 42 million visitors every year.

The main purpose of the park’s outer sidewalk was to ensure that the second you step onto it, “you realize you’re not in the city anymore,” said Elizabeth W. Smith, the president and chief executive of the Central Park Conservancy.

But the pavement is now a bumpy path.

When the paved sidewalks were originally being installed in the 1930s, over 70 years after the first section of the park opened to the public, there were no electric scooters, Citi Bikes or people getting in and out of Ubers. Natural impediments have cropped up, too: Overgrown tree roots push up sections of the sidewalk, and pools of storm water collect in its dips. It’s a safety and accessibility nightmare.

With a major push that began last summer, the conservancy is restoring the sidewalks to their former grandeur block by block — all 108, spanning about six miles — examining each section’s unique needs and level of disrepair, with a budget of about $600,000 per block. Funding for the project comes from the city and the conservancy, a spokesperson for the conservancy said. Currently, less than a third of the perimeter is restored, with 26 blocks completed and six in progress. The team does not have an estimated completion date for the entire perimeter, but said that the current phase of work is expected to be finished by 2028.

The Central Park Conservancy is balancing preservation with modern needs, including accessibility, which is one of the group’s main initiatives in recent and upcoming projects, Ms. Smith said.

Potential safety hazards posed by the condition of sidewalks and trees have led to lawsuits against the conservancy and the city in the past. Last year, a $5.5 million settlement was reached in a lawsuit filed by a woman who was injured after an elm tree fell on her and her three children. In the same year, a Brooklyn resident filed a lawsuit claiming that sidewalk conditions caused her to fall. And in 2021, another park visitor sued, arguing that he was injured after a fall caused by “the broken, depressed and uneven sidewalk/walkway filled with leaves which covered the misleveling.”

By the perimeter’s benches and bus stops, the conservancy is installing new, more regularly shaped granite block pavers that will allow people who use wheelchairs or canes to more smoothly traverse the sidewalk, said Jennifer Wong, a project manager and landscape architect at the conservancy.

And in some sections where the legacy paving had sporadically been replaced with plain paving, the conservancy is bringing back the ornate patterns. “Someone at some point came in and said, ‘We need an accessible block at the bus stop,’” Ms. Wong said. “And so they kind of obliterated the granite block and just put in what they needed to make it work. So that’s part of our work here, to re-establish the paving patterns, while layering in modern, new uses.”

In New York, updating the built environment can come at the expense of historical aesthetics. Gray buildings and floors have often replaced beloved brownstones and parquet planks. Some nostalgic aspects of the cityscape, like bilingual street signs, fade away over time, and new fixtures, like outdoor dining huts, pop up with seemingly no precedent. But preserving the sidewalk’s original look — by maintaining and in some places re-establishing the old herringbone and basket-weave paving patterns — is central to the conservancy’s modernization efforts.

The park’s prized American elm trees are a large part of why the restoration will take years to complete. The conservancy planted 58 new trees around the perimeter and is taking care to disturb the existing roots as little as possible as it installs the new sidewalk blocks and benches.

“Central Park has one of the largest stands in American elms left in North America because the Dutch elm disease took away so many elms across the country,” Ms. Smith said. The disease, which was first found in the United States in the 1930s, killed 90 percent of American elms, The Times previously reported. Ms. Smith added, “A lot of the work we’re doing on the perimeter is also to protect the elms, because they give this special flavor to being in Central Park.”

It might sound like a lot of trouble to go to for a sidewalk, something that we walk all over. But sidewalks can be an equalizer of sorts in New York City, where the very wealthy otherwise live very differently from the very poor.

“Sidewalks are the ultimate public space,” said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles who wrote a book about them. “They exemplify openness and democracy. They’re supposed to be the most public of public spaces. To be that, they really have to be open and accessible to everyone, regardless of age, gender, disability, race, ethnicity — all the variables.”

Sidewalks have many more uses today than they did when they were first becoming widespread in the United States in the 19th century, Dr. Loukaitou-Sideris said, pointing to electric scooters, delivery robots, people using Google Maps on foot, people waiting for Ubers, and restaurants expanding onto the sidewalk. “There are all these new uses that have been brought about by digital technology and the pandemic,” she said. “Sidewalks are becoming more important than what they have been, and it might be a new era for sidewalks.”

New Yorkers, who are often credited with turning ordinary necessities into spectacular amenities, can transform the sidewalk into a stage, a marketplace or even a five-star restaurant.

Shayeza Walid, a 23-year-old master’s student living in Morningside Heights, recalled how a sidewalk saved her 15th birthday.

She and her friends couldn’t get into a restaurant where they were hoping to celebrate, so instead they bought slices of pizza and ate them on the sidewalk. “We ended up having a really great time there, and that was one of my best birthdays,” Ms. Walid said.

Last year, Sean O’Connell walked more than 20 blocks of Central Park’s perimeter sidewalk, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Plaza Hotel. “You can tell that it just needs help, and needs somebody to level it for sure,” said Mr. O’Connell, a 25-year-old gardener living in Park Slope. “And just with the amount of stuff they’re trying to put on the sidewalk — like signs, Citi Bike stops — there’s just more of a premium on the space.”

Ruminating on the importance of sidewalks to his life today, Mr. O’Connell said that as a child in Brooklyn, the sidewalk was his “antagonist.” “When I was a kid, I walked a little funny,” he said. “I’d be tripping left and right. A ton of my block was just unlevel sidewalk. Ten-year-old me was suffering.”

For Mr. O’Connell, life was defined by the freedom the sidewalk afforded him. “Growing up here, everything happens on the sidewalk, like my entire social life, even going to school, meeting friends on the sidewalk, seeing people,” said Mr. O’Connell. “I just cannot imagine life without being able to walk wherever the hell I want.”


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