An Unforeseen Catalyst, an Opportunity for Change

December 7, 2018, Department, by Stacie Ellickson, PLA, ASLA

2018 December Social Equity An Unforeseen Catalyst an Opportunity for Change 410

The evolution of Roberto Clemente State Park

Waterfront parks have been a consistent trend in the evolution of New York City’s public park system. Based on the success of precedents, including the master plan and implementation of Hudson River Park, and the large community effort that resulted in Brooklyn Bridge Park, the city is continuing to transform former industrial waterfronts into publicly accessible spaces.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy was a destructive force of nature in the city. Government agencies mobilized quickly to execute immediate repairs, and major waterfront parks became case studies for the resiliency of planting and site materials following the storm surge. In other areas, the storm exposed weaknesses in infrastructure, presenting opportunities for change. This was the case at Roberto Clemente State Park (RCSP) in the Bronx, where Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA) collaborated with other design professionals in the park’s transformation.

Site Context

RCSP is in the floodplain of the Harlem River (a saltwater estuary) in the Bronx neighborhood of Morris Heights. Like much of the southern Bronx, Morris Heights ranks among the lowest in the five boroughs for both household income and access to open space. Area parks are often small playgrounds with limited active recreation opportunities. Nearby schools, colleges or community gardens provide other recreation opportunities with limited public access. RCSP fills this void.

Despite its unique panoramic views of upper Manhattan, RCSP is not widely known. Access to the park is not so easy for those outside its immediate area. Car or commuter trains are the most convenient and the most expensive means of getting there, and there are few bus or subway options. This maintains a level of secrecy and RCSP’s status as a neighborhood park.

Park Evolution

Prior to becoming a New York State park, the site was owned by the Consolidated Ship Building Company. Much of the current park was either water or accessory structures. Funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the master plan was prepared in 1969, and the park opened in 1973 as Harlem River Bronx State Park. In 1974, the park was renamed after Roberto Clemente, the first Latino-American inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Throughout the years, the community lost its connection to the river. The shorelines became overgrown, programming focused attention toward the park’s interior, and the bulkhead guardrails kept patrons at a distance from the polluted Harlem River. Starting in the mid-2000s, the park underwent a series of updates. When Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, RCSP was inundated with more than 3 feet of water, which rapidly deteriorated its aging infrastructure. The park received funding to restore the bulkhead and rebuild other damaged areas, quickly shifting its renovation efforts from ongoing modernization to reconstruction and resilience to sustain this community jewel for years to come.

Information Gathering

Understanding RCSP’s stakeholders was a critical component of the redesign process. The park is a practice facility for local community college athletes, a playground for the local elementary school and a launch point for a rowing club. Most importantly, RCSP is a neighborhood destination. Families spend their afternoons and weekends here swimming, barbecuing, celebrating and enjoying time outdoors.

MNLA worked closely with park staff to identify the keys to a successful redesign and observed park use on both weekdays and weekends. A community meeting was held in mid-2014 to gather feedback on the schematic and master planning efforts and to identify new programming that would best serve the community.

Redesign and Resiliency

The redesign goals included updating RCSP infrastructure, expanding existing successful programming, incorporating new programming, reconnecting the park to the Harlem River and identifying potential environmental and educational interventions.

With other professionals, MNLA worked to design and implement seven projects identified by State Parks, each resolving specific goals: the Bulkhead, Esplanade, Inter-Tidal Pool and North Shoreline addressed waterfront infrastructure; the Upper Plaza strengthened the park entrance; the Lower Plaza revitalized existing programming; and the North Upland expanded programming, bringing new partnerships to the park. Improved water quality and a new boat dock provide opportunities for kayaking and water safety courses, and the bikeway allows future connections to a larger bikeway network.

Post-Hurricane Sandy, elevating public space and new buildings in low-lying areas has become de rigueur in New York City. This was not possible for RCSP. Knowing inundation would likely reoccur, the MNLA team put efforts into the resiliency of specific elements, including reduction of impervious surfaces using planting and permeable pavers, designing structures to withstand floodwater forces and using salt-tolerant plant species.

Environmental and educational opportunities aimed at growing the community’s relationship to the river were incorporated. The inter-tidal pool’s elevated walkways provide moments to observe wildlife and the river’s ebb and flow within the tidal marsh. The use of native and pollinator-friendly plant species was prioritized. Proposed interpretive signage highlights the site’s history, tidal marsh zones and the conveyance of stormwater in the plazas.

Communication has been key during the RCSP construction. The park’s staff has been diligent about keeping the community informed of temporary closures at the park and works closely with the construction manager to prioritize patron safety. Project phasing was coordinated so areas of the park were always open to the public. Parks staff was consulted during construction to ensure the goals and schedules were not impacted.


The Lower Plaza, led by the MNLA team, was the first project to reopen in May 2018, providing expanded picnic areas, an informal performance space and outdoor game areas. While the opening was informal, the use of the space increased quickly as word spread throughout the neighborhood. The response to the renovated plaza has been overwhelmingly positive and patrons remain enthusiastic about the progress of the other park projects, anticipated to open in 2019.

After four years of construction, there is much anticipation within the community, New York State Parks and the MNLA team to observe how RCSP becomes a more resilient and robust backyard for its patrons, while reengaging with a river that was ultimately the biggest agent of change for Roberto Clemente State Park.

Stacie Ellickson, PLA, ASLA, is a Senior Landscape Architect for Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects

Additional resources:

  1. For the redesign of RCSP MNLA coordinated with New York State Office of Parks and Recreation as well as multiple professionals. In alphabetical order: ADS Engineers, AKRF, eDesign Dynamics, Goldstick Lighting Design Ltd., Jacobs (formerly CH2M), NV5 (formerly RBA), Silman, and Wesler-Cohen Associates. LiRo Group served as the Construction Manager for all projects.
  2. Household Income in Morris Heights, New York, New York
  3. New Yorkers for Parks 2015 district statistics for Brooklyn city council district 14
  4. NYPL Map Warper
  5. Contemporary Architects. Emanuel, Muriel. 1980.The Cultural Landscape
  6. The Cultural Landscape Foundation