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Dag Hammarskjold Plaza Park:
Countdown to Opening

By Anne Saxon-Hersh

The block-long park known as Dag Hammarskjold Plaza is slated for completion on June 30, and if all goes as planned, this magnificent gateway to the United Nations on East 47th Street should be open to the public by mid-July.

Bob Redmond, chief administrator of Manhattan Parks, said the chain-link fence surrounding the site will be removed as soon as the contractor's work on the final phase of construction has been approved.

What's left to do? A few "change- orders" on the fountains to enable easier maintenance, the installations of an iron-lattice pavilion at the Second Avenue entrance and a solarium structure (the food concession) that comes prefabricated from England. The benches have already been delivered; the street lamps are being installed at this writing. Parks has also promised the community a utility shed for storing garden tools and supplies used by volunteer gardeners.

NYC Parks Department indicated that the ribbon cutting might be held at the end of July to coincide with the late Dag Hammarskjold's birthday. Redmond confirmed the possibility, noting, "We have a tradition of holding openings to commemorate birthdays, but these ceremonies are dependent upon the availability of city officials, so ribbon cuttings can come months after a park is actually open. We don't want to make the community wait any longer for this park."

Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, the product of more than a decade of planning, began reconstruction in 1994 with the demolition of a raised sculpture platform at the Second Avenue end. Phase II, which was completed in May 1997, added a lushly planted border (Katharine Hepburn Garden) with a low wrought- iron fence, fountains and decorative iron- work, granite seating walls, and new paving. Phase III did not get underway until an agreement was reached to relocate the M50 and M27 bus layover to East 42nd Street. Once that hurdle was cleared, construction for the final phase converted the eastbound roadway of 47th Street to plaza, adding half an acre of park land. Phase III also provided for more trees, additional lighting and other amenities.

Public funding for the $3.5 million reconstruction has represented a three-way commitment among the offices of Council Member Andrew Eristoff, the Borough President, and the Mayor.

For readers who weren't around in the 1980's when the Turtle Bay Association initially called for the redesign of the barren plaza into an attractive public space, park architect George Vellonakis serves as a valuable source of information. The design was based on an assessment of needs, site analysis and public hearings. Vellonakis recalls, "A very vocal contingent insisted that demonstration space should not be sacrificed. So even though the design provided for lots of greenery, architectural features and additional amenities, it did not diminish the space for public assembly."

Water features were added to mitigate street noise and to create a cool, serene setting. The vista from the Second Avenue entrance through the domed pavilion to the UN statue garden distinguishes the park as a gateway to the world's greatest institution of international peace, an elegant promenade that invites us to linger.

"Dag Hammarskjold was a peacemaker, and the park is designed to evoke a sense of tranquility, dignity and grace," states Vellonakis.

Newcomers to the area, observing the construction site and inquiring about the park design, have occasionally asked, "Why not a grassy lawn? And why not a fence to close the park at night?" The answers stem from the original site analysis on which the design was based and approved. Even though the frequency of large, organized marches has decreased over the years, as long as the plaza retains its use as a UN demonstration area, fencing the park was deemed impractical and unsafe; and grass turf, difficult and costly to maintain.

However, the plaza presents myriad opportunities for other types of public assembly, from a green market like Union Square to street fairs, exhibits and cultural events. With its splendid new design, Dag Hammarskjold Plaza gives Turtle Bay a magnificent centerpiece, a public space that is fit for the world's most prestigious delegations. But with any luck at all, you and I will be the first to take a stroll in the Katharine Hepburn Garden.

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The Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community organization.

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