Military Park re-opens, offering residents, workers and students an open space with entertainment, gardens, games

Friday, June 13, 2014

As some of the first summer-like days arrived last month, a tall chain link fence standing around Military Park came down. Bistro tables with matching chairs were spread out, and ping pong tables were set up.  

In the heart of downtown Newark, it was as if a curtain was pulled away and the public was invited back into the park after a year-long effort to create a new version of Manhattan’s popular Bryant Park.

As part of the park make-over, a sword-shaped reflecting pool was turned into a large flower garden. 

Military Park, a spot rich with history and speckled with a striking collection of monuments, is now attracting chess players and lunch-time visitors. Commuters, who once skirted the spot, are turning down park paths and walking through its new gardens en route to nearby offices. Classes and musical concerts are planned throughout the summer to lure regular crowds of residents, workers and students.

"We want a lot of people in the park,” Benjamin Donsky, who managed the revitalization project for Biederman Redevelopment Ventures and serves as vice president of the Military Park Partnership, said recently as he walked through the park.

"That’s why we’re doing all the programming and activities,’’ Donsky said, "to give people lots of reasons to be here.”

In a city that has finally gained some momentum in its efforts to revitalize a stretch of abandoned retail buildings in the downtown, Military Park is considered a jewel with the capability of enhancing everything around it, including the 20-story office tower Prudential is building across the street and proposed housing developments that will infuse the downtown with residents.  

There are also hopes that a Military Park bustling with activity will pull workers and students into the neighborhood that surrounds their offices and campuses, creating pedestrian traffic that will also help new businesses along Halsey and New streets. The park is within easy walking distance from Rutgers Business School

The six-acre park, which dates back to 1667 and served as a training ground for soldiers until 1869, sat for years, neglected, unused and unappreciated. Yet, its history couldn’t be erased and neither could the significance of some of its monuments, including Jacques Lipchitz’s bust of John F. Kennedy or Gutzon Borgulum’s colossal sculpture “Wars of America,” which has stood in the park since 1926.

During a ceremony marking the re-opening of the park on June 13, Sen. Cory Booker, Newark’s former mayor, reflected on the determination to restore Military Park as well as the hope tied to its transformation.

City officials, area philanthropists and representatives of Prudential were among the people credited with carrying out the make-over of Military Park during a ceremony marking its official reopening.

"You can’t have a great American city without great open spaces,” Booker said. "May this be a space that truly brings us together and helps us create a better city.”

The $3.25 million park restoration was sweeping, ranging from alterations to an intimidating cement-walled entrance to an underground parking garage on the north end to the creation of a French-styled allée of American Elms on the south end.

As part of the project, more than an acre of the park was carved out for gardens, creating a lush effect at the northern end. Evergreens were added so there would be green year-round. A cemented area at the Raymond Boulevard end was widened to create a patio-like area for activities and exercise classes.

In March, 4,000 pansies were planted throughout the 4-acre park adding ribbons of purple and splashes of yellow. "There haven’t been flowers in Military Park in at least 20 years,” Donsky said.

The park was also furnished with bistro-styled tables and chairs, board games, a reading room, ping pong tables, 24-hour security and a hospitality attendant.

Attention to certain small details were deliberate: Electricity was installed so a tall clock in the middle of the park would start telling time. Ceramic tile was used to finish a set of new restrooms in an extra effort to make the facilities attractive and a cement-walled entrance to an underground parking lot inside the park was re-done with glass and lights.

As summer unfolds, events and activities will increase. The farmer’s market begins in mid-June. A small restaurant is scheduled to open in July.

Bryant Park’s restoration and ensuing success inspired the ambitious plans to revive Military Park. Daniel Biederman, who is considered an urban parks expert, carried out the four-year project, which is now a celebrated case study in urban park redevelopment.

Following the Bryant Park model, Military Park will be managed and maintained by the Military Park Partnership, a nonprofit corporation staffed by Donsky and other Biederman professionals.

"There are a lot of people outside and inside Newark who are skeptical about whether this will work,” Donsky said of the ambitions for Military Park. He remains unfazed by the cynicism.

"Our experience,” he said, "has led us to believe that we can trust the public with delicate things.”  

Military Park: Some highlights

Summer line up: Yoga classes, films, a weekly farmer’s market, poetry readings, live music and more.

One claim to fame: In 1776, George Washington’s troops retreated to the site before battling the British in Trenton and Princeton.

Still to come: Fund-raising is underway to generate $800,000 to pay for the restoration of the monuments scattered across the park, including sculptures of John F. Kennedy’s bust and Gutzon Borglum’s “Wars of America.”  

Website: www.militarypark.com

Twitter handle: @MilitaryParkNWK

-Susan Todd

TAGS: City of Newark Full-Time MBA Prudential Undergraduate Newark