Reclaiming Roberto Clemente State Park

December 28, 2006 at 4:14 am Leave a comment

Hugging the Harlem River just south of Bronx Community College, cut off from the borough by the Major Deegan Expressway and Metro-North Railroad, Roberto Clemente State Park in Morris Heights might seem an unlikely site for a vast recreational complex. But every year, tens of thousands of schoolchildren, athletes and residents from the adjacent River Park Towers flock to the park’s ball fields, basketball courts, docks and Olympic-sized swimming pool.

In fact, in the words of city Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, so many local residents and out-of-towners frequent the 33-year-old park that it has essentially been “loved to death.” So on Thursday, December 14, Benepe joined his state counterpart, Bernadette Castro, Deputy Borough President Earl Brown, members of the Roberto Clemente little league and children from the River Park Towers day care program to announce the start of a $20-million rehabilitation that will prepare the park for a whole new generation.

With work already begun on the park’s two basketball courts — the only planned project that will cost under $1 million — construction is expected to last years and provide the greatest improvement to a single stretch of Bronx parkland in decades. The rehab is also set to coincide with investments in nearby city-owned parks to create a new wave of recreational activities throughout the borough’s west coast.

Opened in 1973 as Harlem River Bronx State Park, the 25-acre expanse was the first state park in the boundaries of New York City. The following year it was renamed after Clemente, the baseball Hall-of-Famer and Pittsburgh right fielder who died in a plane crash in 1972 while on a relief mission to Nicaragua. The massive rehabilitation will both add new features to the recreational center and modernize nearly every one of its current attractions.

“This comprehensive rehabilitation project at Roberto Clemente State Park will provide greater access and green space along the waterfront, as well as exciting new features at the aquatics facility, improved basketball courts and ball fields and other new and improved recreational resources at the home of New York’s first urban state park,” Castro said during the announcement ceremony, held in the park’s popular recreation center.

The rehab is being funded through the city Parks Department’s Bronx Parks for the 21st Century program, a $220-million campaign that grew out of the city’s decision to construct a water filtration plant underneath the Mosholu Golf Course in Van Cortlandt Park. Dozens of parks-improvement projects are underway throughout the borough, but the Roberto Clemente enhancement is among the most expansive.

Specifically, the $20-million investment will accomplish the following:

The two basketball courts, Located south of the swimming pool, will be completely overhauled, with new court surfacing, improved lighting, new drinking fountains and overall landscaping improvements.
• The aquatic center, one of the most sought-after features of the park complex, located just south of the rec center, will be completely refurbished, with spruce-ups to the Olympic-sized swimming pool and sundeck areas, remodeled and enlarged locker rooms and restrooms, new entranceways, and a new spray shower.
• The ball fields, located at the north end of the park, will be improved and expanded. An existing baseball diamond will get new fencing, new sod, a resurfaced infield area and an irrigation system. An existing lawn area will be converted into an artificial-turf football/softball field.
• A large concrete plaza just north of the rec center will be replaced by significant swaths of lawn space, with beefed-up picnic areas, playgrounds and community gardens. In total, the project will create four additional acres of green space.
• The rec center itself, which houses basketball courts, a billiards room and meeting space, will undergo much-needed roof repairs. When it rains, park staff are known to scatter buckets around the gym floor to catch leaks.


The planned, funded improvements, which should materialize beginning in the spring, do not rule out future rehabs and additions, Castro said. The state is still committed to building a boathouse along the waterfront to accommodate a large number of rowers who use the park, and an environmental center could be in the works depending on available funding.

Both Benepe and Castro portrayed the Roberto Clemente project as a key ingredient to their respective governments’ shared goal of developing a Harlem River Greenway — a continuous strip of green space cascading along the length of the river. Work is already underway on Harlem River Park in upper Manhattan, and the state recently invested $350,000 in the development and cleanup of Bridge Park, a three-acre, century-old Bronx green space that abuts Robert Clemente’s south side.

Roberto Clemente State Park’s Olympic-sized swimming pool is one of its most popular features, but 30 years of use has taken its toll.– PHOTO BY BRET NOLAN COLLAZZI/BNC

And already, the state has begun running ads on its Metro-North lines, some of which stop at Morris Heights, encouraging out-of-borough park-goers to explore Roberto Clemente State Park and its surrounding wonders. As the borough continues its decade-long revival, its parkland can play as active a role as any other attractions at advertising the resurgence to others, said Castro, who lived in the east Bronx briefly during her childhood.

The rehab will add four acres of green space to the park, including at this concrete plaza just north of the recreation center.– PHOTO BY BRET NOLAN COLLAZZI/BNC

“The Bronx gets a bad rap sometimes,” the state commissioner told a crowd of children, park organizers and elected officials. “Roberto Clemente State Park can help deliver the message that there is a vital quality of life here.”


By Brett Nolan Collazzi


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