Village of Irvington Mulls Changes at Matthiessen Park

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by Katherine Cain – 

With a changing demographic that includes more young families with children and dogs, the Village of Irvington is taking a fresh look at the configuration of its signature waterfront Matthiessen Park and the rules that govern its use.

An overhaul of the park is part of a comprehensive update of all of the village’s parks and public spaces, as requested by the Board of Trustees. Initial plans to renovate Matthiessen began in 2006 and were presented to the village board, then halted when the recession hit in 2009. Plans kicked back into gear this winter. At a series of public meetings, residents expressed their desire for bikes and scooters in the parks, with secondary requests that included an updated playground and an allowance for dogs on leash.

“The public meetings made me realize how many new residents we have with new perspectives that need to be heard,” said Joe Archino, the Superintendent of the Recreation and Parks Department. “It’s not the same Irvington that was here 20 years ago. It’s a different place, and we need to listen.”

Wheels in the Park

Currently bikes and scooters are not allowed in any Irvington parks, a rule that the village’s insurance company says is necessary due to safety concerns, as the current pathways are simply not wide enough to accommodate both walkers and wheels. Widening the paths in Matthiessen Park to allow wheels is priority number one in the renovation plan.

When Irvington’s other waterfront park, Scenic Hudson, was planned for in the late 1990’s and then built in the early 2000’s, allowing wheels in the park wasn’t something of importance to the residents, so the paths were built for walkers and runners only.

Over the course of the next few years, however, the Parks Department received some pressure to allow bikes and scooters, so they tested out a plan where they would be allowed for certain hours only, with village attendants present to ensure things went smoothly. The plan didn’t work as well as the department had hoped. It required additional budgeting to have attendants present, people brought in wheels outside of the specified times, and the village received complaints from walkers. As a result, it was revoked.

The reality is that many local parents with young kids are either unaware that wheels are not allowed in the park or choose to let their children ride anyway, under a watchful eye. “Given the lack of sidewalks in our area, the park would seem to be a natural place to ride bikes or scooters,” reasoned Katerina Manoff, mother of a four-year-old daughter.

More often than not, there are typically few if any people in the park to tell parents that riding is not allowed, so they overlook the rule. Others, though, don’t feel comfortable breaking the rules, as much as they might like to let their kids ride. With so many moving up the Hudson from Manhattan and Brooklyn, where there are few such restrictions, an expanse of riverside parkland free of city sidewalk breaks and taxis zipping past is part of the suburban dream.

A Modernized Playground

To replace the existing 1980’s vintage playground, a separate committee has been tasked with developing an entirely new design. Formed in December, the committee consists of a dozen village residents who have toured local playgrounds and met with outside contractors to determine the best design for the village. The current design plan includes a three-station playground, each station appealing to a particular age group, swings and a splash pad.

The Parks Department met with residents in April to get feedback, and will present their final plans to the Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee (RPAC), a group that serves as a liaison between the Parks Department and the community, and finally to the village board. If approved, construction would likely be underway by the spring of 2020.

When the new Matthiessen Park is unveiled, the hope is for its use to increase both during the week and the weekends. Picture more seasonal events, bringing back summer concerts, warm weather weekend barbecues and birthday parties. “This is a very cool opportunity for us to be re-seeding this gem of Matthiessen Park for the next generation of Irvington kids,” said Janet Kovacs, vice chair of RPAC and co-chair of the Playground Committee. “I grew up in Irvington and have been playing in that park for the last 40 years.”

Dogs on Leash

Dog owners in the village have, for years, asked for a place where their pets could run free within a contained area. A dog park citizens committee established in 2015 explored various locales, including a fenced-in portion of Matthiessen Park, but in the end were unable to get the Parks Department to designate a space. Still, the public sentiment favors accommodation.

“There is a strong desire for families, including their dogs, to come down to the park and spend time as a family,” said Larry Lonky, Chairman of RPAC, village trustee, and a longtime Irvington resident. “That includes their children being able to ride their bicycles, and dogs on leash being able to come down as well. Right now those things are not allowed and there are reasons,” he continued. “I’m speaking for the Recreation and Parks department and the village board. They are both happy to listen to residents and formalize what changes there need to be.”

Approval of leashed dogs would come only after a new playground is completed and fully fenced in, and it will include designation of an area as dog-free.

Whose Parks is it?

Currently, all of Irvington’s parks, with the exception of Scenic Hudson, are for residents only. Without sufficient staff, the rule is typically unenforced, yet some residents still feel uncomfortable with its exclusivity—especially at a time that the village wants to attract tourism. “Our argument is that nothing is more unwelcoming than a sign that says ‘residents only,’” said Thom Thacker, a co-founder of Irvington Activists, a group of village residents promoting a variety of progressive policies. “This is a village that wants people to eat at its restaurants, walk its streets. We believe the parks should be open to everybody and there shouldn’t be any restrictions.”

One modification under consideration by RPAC would change park entrance signs to more welcoming language. A public meeting will be set on the issue, likely this spring.

Once the above plans are approved, a second round of proposals will include updating bathrooms at the entrance of the park, and adding a stage at the north end—Irvington’s own version of Shakespeare in the Park.

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