On Wednesday, Essex County unveiled plans for a new playground in Verona Park. On Friday, it began to take down one of the park’s oldest trees, a towering oak that was part of Verona Park’s original Olmstead Brothers’ design almost 100 years ago.
The new playground is part of $2 million in changes to the park, which also include resurfacing the three tennis courts and paving the lawn next to the courts for 53 parking spaces. In place of the two old playgrounds that stood on either side of the old oak, the new playground will be a single space with different equipment for different age groups. It has been designed by Arterial Design Studio of Montclair.
James Ribaudo, Arterial’s director of operations, said its work was inspired by the hill on the playground’s eastern side, which will now become an “adventure hill” with a variety of activities to roll, jump and slide down. Arterial also designed the playground on the county’s Glenfield Park on the Montclair-Glen Ridge border.
According Charles Heyer, the new president of the Verona Park Conservancy, the new playground design did include the old tree. “Everyone appreciated it for the icon it is,” he wrote on MyVeronaNJ.com’s Facebook page on Friday. “Then last week a limb fell nearly hitting a worker in the area where the sitting benches will be. The county immediately had an arborist inspect it and found that it was diseased. The county could not risk someone being hit by another limb. The Conservancy will be receiving the arborist’ report soon. It’s a sad day for sure.” The oak did not appear on the design plan that was shown off at Wednesday’s press conference announcing the playground and parking lot changes.
The Conservancy is a non-profit founded in 1995 that works with Essex County to maintain and beautify the park. (The Essex County Park System has 19 parks and five reservations, including Verona Park and the Hilltop Reservation in Verona.) Heyer said on Facebook that the Conservancy was not part of the planning and approval process for the new round of work. The Conservancy has, in recent years, marked a number of park trees as needing pruning or removal; two near the boathouse appear to not yet have have been attended to. The oak had not been marked. In February 2010, the county cut down a wide-spreading European beech that had been known to generations of Veronans as the “climbing tree”.
Friday’s shearing of the giant oak’s canopy sparked a lengthy round of commentary on MyVeronaNJ.com’s Facebook page, but it is not the only aspect of the park changes that has raised eyebrows. The new parking spaces inside the park could dissuade visitors from parking on Park Avenue and the surrounding streets. But they will alter the park view for residents of Manor Road, who are upset about the change. “The first any of us heard was when I just happened to attend the presentation at the boathouse on Wednesday,” said one resident who wished to remain anonymous. “The lot was poorly designed by a county engineer without any thought to the neighborhood. When my neighbor spoke with him this morning he had no idea there was a road here.” (Manor Road is the site of the Hiram Cook Homestead, the house built by the Civil War veteran who had the original idea for Verona Park.)
The Verona Environmental Commission had sought to make the parking more environmentally friendly–to no avail. The VEC met with Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and the county’s parks director, Dan Salvante, on September 20 to ask the county to use porous paving instead of traditional asphalt on the lot. Permeable paving allows rainwater and melting snow to filter down to the ground below just as they would filter through a lawn, helping to prevent contaminated run-off from reaching the lake. The VEC got the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program to show how the county’s parking design could be amended with permeable paving, noting that it is already in use South Orange and at the Edison Environmental Center. The parking design presented Wednesday does not include permeable paving.
Essex County has spent several million dollars on Verona Park in recent years. In 2012, it put $1 million into installing antique-style lamp posts along the walking paths and all-weather decking around the boathouse. It remodeled the public core of the boathouse in 2014. In 2013, Aramark gutted and re-built the boathouse kitchen after the county chose it to be the park’s food vendor.