WALKWAY ADDS OLD-TIME GRACE

JACQUELYN SWEARINGEN Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: F1

Date: Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Albany The city will never be Paris, but its principal park can now boast of a polished pedestrian mall reminiscent of the tree-lined walkways of Europe as well as Albany's own past. This month work crews laid the finishing touches on a $120,000 restoration of Washington Park's eastern promenade, which stretches from the Soldier and Sailors Monument at the beginning of Henry Johnson Boulevard to Madison Avenue. Over the past two months, they had torn up the asphalt, doubled the width to about 30 feet, and laid down fine packed gravel.


The result is a tree-lined stretch dotted with historically accurate benches and lamp posts. It welcomes both tourists and those who usually hurry across Washington Park on their way to work or home.


``We really hope that with the lighting and the added benches that more people will use the mall as they do in Europe, as an outdoor civic space for meeting people and getting fresh air,'' said Sandra Baptie, president of the Washington Park Conservancy, an advocacy group of volunteers.


The project began about three years ago, when the American Association of Architects included Washington Park on its list of the nation's 100 most important parks. Conservancy members began searching for ways to recreate the serenity and grandeur evident in old photos of the promenade.


They applied without success for state and federal grants to make the paved thoroughfare resemble the original plan for the park, conceived in 1868 by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City.


Last year, Mayor Jerry Jennings added the total cost of the undertaking to the city's 2001 capital budget, and the city awarded the contract to the Hudson River Construction Co. Inc. of Albany. It is largest park restoration project undertaken in recent memory, according to William Bruce, Albany's Department of General Services commissioner.


The next step is to restore a cathedral-like canopy of trees. One plan is to replace gradually the crab apple trees that now border the walk with taller arching trees such as disease-resistant elms. The trees that once lined the promenade succumbed to Dutch Elm disease.


``You have to start somewhere and the park walk will be there in 20 to 30 years as the trees mature,'' said Bruce.


Along each side of the mall, the city also hopes to add more of the benches specially designed for the park by Architectural Iron Co. of Milford, Pa. The Conservancy hopes to donate 11 of those wooden seats with green iron arms and legs, said Baptie.


With the mall recreated, the city and the Conservancy have turned to the park's lake, whose edges have eroded and pathways deteriorated. Both groups are cooperating on a plan to conserve the lake's perimeter and provide better access, according to Bruce.


The Conservancy has also applied to the New York State Council of the Arts for a grant to study expanded uses for the 1929 lake house that is currently the summer home of the Park Play House. Jennings expects to name a committee to look at possibilities, according to Bruce.


On a chilly but clear November morning, two friends chatted on the promenade as their dogs romped. Joyce Cohen was surprised to learn the pathway would not be repaved.


``It looks like a thoroughfare. It's very wide,'' said the Albany woman. ``I think the roller bladers are not going to be happy.