by Barrett Seaman –
For more than 70 years, Irvington’s signature waterfront recreation area, Matthiessen Park, has been restricted to village residents (and their guests). Even homeowners in East Irvington, an unincorporated part of Greenburgh whose children attend Irvington schools, are not permitted in Matthiessen.
Over the past year, however, a move to open the park to non-residents has been building momentum. Spearheaded by the Irvington Activists, a group of residents who champion progressive causes, the call to open the park has in turn drawn a backlash from residents who fear that an open park will invite overuse, unwanted outsiders and higher taxes. (See Point/Counterpoint in The Hudson Independent, November 2019)
Despite its tree-lined paths, its playground, picnic tables, barbeque pits and a beach, use of the park has dwindled in recent years, prompting the village to task the Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee (RPAC) with finding ways to revitalize it. For the past year, RPAC reviewed current restrictions, such as the ban on bicycles, scooters and dogs (even on leash), as well as on non-residents. While RPAC deliberated, the Board of Trustees felt compelled to schedule a public hearing to hear both sides of the issue as well as RPAC’s findings. The first such hearing was held December 11.
At that hearing, Joe Archino, who has headed Recs and Parks for 34 years, reported that, based on RPAC’s recommendations, a $1.6 million project to upgrade the park, re-build the playground and open the park to skating and biking would go out to bid shortly. Completion is expected in September. But he went on at some length to defend the village against charges implicit in the call to open the park that Irvington was unwelcome to outsiders, noting the large numbers of non-residents who participate in a wide range of recreation programs such as its basketball and softball leagues. Many other municipalities in the county, he noted, had residents-only parks. He also warned of increased costs incurred by other villages with open parks, citing Dobbs Ferry as an example.
The source of the residents-only restriction, taken for granted by both citizens and officials alike, is a deed drawn up in 1947 from the Matthiessen family that had gifted the waterfront land to the village, stipulating that it could not be used “for any purpose other than as a park for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the Village of Irvington.” But that language, concluded village attorney Marianne Stecich, applied only to a narrow strip of land on the north end of the park and not its entirety. The original 1945 deed, which applied to the whole park, said its purpose was to be for “the benefit and enjoyment of the public.” In short, concluded the village’s attorney, there was no legal impediment to opening the park to outsiders.
After Archino spoke came RPAC, represented at the meeting by committee member Michael Smith, who noted that RPAC’s charge was to look for ways to increase usage of Matthiessen. The $1.6 million upgrade was the committee’s answer, but that did not address the larger question of who gets to go there. RPAC’s recommendation, said Smith, stressing that the vote on this issue was “unanimous,” to drop the phrase “Village Residents and Guests Only” from the sign at the park’s entrance and replace it with “Park Permit Required.” Further, he reported, the committee recommended extending park permits to all families within the Irvington School District, thus embracing the previously outcast residents of East Irvington.
After that, the public part of the hearing began in earnest.
Altogether, 31 people stood to speak. Twenty-five wrote to the board; most arguing in favor of opening the park. The overarching sentiment of those who favored opening was that the current restriction cast the village in a bad light. Several noted that they had recently moved to Irvington and chose it because it was welcoming. Matthiessen’s restriction, they contended, belied that. “It always makes us sad…to see how empty and deserted the park is,” said Melissa Jones of South Dutcher Street. “We wind up often driving to Tarrytown or Ossining to enjoy more lively and well-used parks.”
Self-described “newbie” Sara Parganos of Fargo Lane said she and her husband chose Irvington “because we wanted a very inclusive place to raise our children,” but that her sister, who lives in Tarrytown, tells her that the feeling in neighboring rivertowns is that “Irvington is elitist and snobby.” Alluding to Joe Archino’s recitation of percentages of non-residents engaged in village programs, she said, “There are statistics, and there is what people feel. I want to feel like I’m living in a place that is welcoming to everyone.”
The most vocal opponent of opening the park, Lauri Regan, was not present at the December 11 hearing but wrote several emails to the board stating her case, which she then repeated at a subsequent public hearing on December 16th. The arguments she and other opponents raise include concern for increased crime (Scenic Hudson Park, Matthiessen’s sibling but open park on the south end of the waterfront, has had a couple of drug arrests, while Matthiessen has had none), increase costs (more trash, more police) for a facility paid for by Irvington taxpayers, and more noise, crowds and need for parking, thus destroying the park’s aesthetic qualities. Confident that her opposition has sufficient community support, Ms. Regan is calling for the village to hold a referendum on the question. In response, the village has said that case law indicates that it cannot do so.
Some residents cautioned against moving too quickly. Long-time resident Joe Clarke, a former village police officer, urged the board to wait to see if the coming upgrade draws more use from a broader population of permit-holders. “We should give them a chance and see what happens,” he said, adding: “if the park is still under-utilized, let’s re-visit it at that time.”
As Mayor Smith promised at the outset, no decisions were made. “Luckily, we have more time,” he said, noting that the park will be closed for six months for renovations. “We’ve got a lot to digest.”