It’s Lilac Festival time. Let’s talk about Highland Park.
Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Highland Park (as well as Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Mont Royal Park in Montreal, the Emerald Necklace of parks in Boston – and the list goes on and on), was a proponent of the idea that urban dwellers need the respite provided by contact with natural spaces. He described the purpose of a park as "an effect on the human organism by an action of what it presents to view, which action, like that of music, is of a kind that goes back of thought, and cannot be fully given the form of words." In other words, being in the park is an indescribable, but really good feeling.
Some might wonder if we are being alarmist when we say that Highland Hospital’s expansion into the surrounding neighborhood would endanger Highland Park. After all, Central Park is a great Olmsted-designed park, and it is able to accommodate tall buildings on its borders. Why is this different?
Part of the beauty of Olmsted’s Highland Park design is that in many parts of the park, such as the Pinetum, the cityscape is hidden from view, so you feel like you’re in a vast forest, even though residences are just a few hundred yards away. If the hospital buys 428 Mount Vernon as it wants to, and if it eventually clears its two-acre lot of trees, that illusion will be vastly diminished in the Pinetum area.
Further, Bellevue, Mount Vernon, Alpine and South Avenue form a one-block buffer between the hospital and the park today. As that gets chipped away, the institutional activity of the hospital gets closer to the park, again interfering with its pastoral nature. Patient, employee, visitor, delivery and ambulance traffic; necessary parking structures; noise, litter and smokers; bright lighting around the clock – all part of a major medical campus, and all of this could be pushed right up to the park’s borders.
Central Park and New York City are, obviously, at a different scale. But the city pays close attention to development bordering the park. Many, if not most, of the buildings are themselves magnificent. The city is very protective of what they know to be a community treasure.
We are talking about potentially diminishing the impact of Olmsted’s design for the city’s crown jewel park. Is that what we, as a community, want to do?