Bryant Park West: San Francisco borrows a park plan



Bryant Park. Photo: Lindsay Cayne.

Lynn Blackburn smiled at her laughing three-year-old son as they exited the carousel on a crowded day in Bryant Park. While waiting for her husband, who works nearby, she sat down at a table and her son sat next to her, on a tiny chair made for toddlers. “I like the carousel, it’s the right speed for a little kid this age,” said Blackburn. She also likes to bring him to the park because there is so much to do.

Bryant Park is the most densely-used urban park in the world, according to Biederman Redevelopment Ventures’ Vice President, Ben Donsky. It has a large lawn space ringed with trees, gardens, tables and chairs; a carousel, a putting course, ping pong tables and chess sets, and an ice skating rink in the winter. The park hosts numerous events, including juggling lessons, birding tours, concerts, and movie screenings.

The park’s extensive programming is now a model for a park on the opposite side of the country: San Francisco’s transit hub rooftop park, which is opening in the spring.

Bryant Park Corporation, the not-for-profit, private management company that runs the park, was formed to revive it after its decline in the 1970s, according to the park’s website. Renovations began in 1988, and the park reopened in 1991.

The Biederman Redevelopment Ventures company, which creates, redevelops, consults and operates parks and public spaces all over the country, played a large role in improving Bryant Park. BRV has recently been hired to manage programming and maintenance of the SF park.

“We’re planning dozens and dozens of different activities that are free and open to the public,” Donsky said about the San Francisco park, “so that’s everything from fitness classes, we’ll have performances of various kinds, mostly smaller performances . . . nothing like you’d see on the scale of Bryant because we don’t have the same size lawn over there.”

Adam Greenspan, a partner at PWP Landscape Architecture, the company in charge of the San Francisco park’s design, stressed the role Bryant Park played during a design competition held to redevelop the city’s existing transit center.

“We developed and used Bryant Park as a reference during the competition about the concept of having a schedule of events,” he said. “I think the spatial relationship and sort of layout was based on . . . being able to program this related to where people come in, where they might see things.”

“I think that the activities program, not just programming activities but programming activities that bring folks in, that’s what makes [Bryant Park] successful,” said Nila Gonzales, chief of staff of Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the public government agency that will own the San Francisco transit hub and park.

But there are several differences between the designs of the two parks, said Greenspan. The Transbay park is on a roof 70 feet above ground, while Bryant Park is at street level. Also, the San Francisco park’s layout is long and skinny, and just 5.4 acres while Bryant Park is a wide rectangle that is 9.6 acres.

“What you’ll be able to do and the programming that can occur will be similar in its concept and the effort and idea in the big picture, but the specific programs might be different because of the different spatial arrangement of the park itself,” Greenspan said.

Parks can attract trouble, such as buying and selling drugs, so BRV uses staff and programming to help change that. “Ultimately, our goal is to flood the park[s] with as many people as possible and make it an asset that best serves the surrounding community,” said Donsky, “and the way to do that is by providing ways for them to participate in a huge variety of activities that they want to engage in . . . We’re here to make world class public spaces and to do that, you have to make them safe, clean, attractive and fun.”

PWP proposed the San Francisco rooftop park as part of their response to the international Transbay Transit Center Design Competition of 2007, which they won. “Rather than being just a roof on this three-block long building,” Greenspan said, “we proposed something that we hope is sort of a destination that’s sustainable ecologically and socially in the area and that’s something that’s nice to look down on and nice to come up to.”

Games host Tony Morris works in Bryant Park overseeing five different games, including Putt Putt, Kubb, Backgammon, ping pong, and the art cart.  He thinks a park in San Francisco that has a similar program to Bryant Park is a good idea because he sees his park as “a little oasis.”

“The programming is awesome, we always get the coolest stuff . . . everything is free, all the classes, summer yoga classes on the lawn,” said Owen Carten, who also works as a games host.