Owen Dolen is back.
With the completion of $5 million in renovations on the Westchester Square park, community leaders, elected officials and merchants are confident it’s re-opening is a sign the commercial corridor’s fortunes are well underway.
The park, in the heart of the square and next to a major transportation hub of buses and elevated subway stop, officially reopened amid fanfare on Wednesday, June 12 after being closed for renovation in Sept., 2011.
Among the renovations were a pedestrian plaza and an outdoor performance space that leaders hope will make the park a destination.
Some $4.5 million in city funds were secured with the help of local Councilman Jimmy Vacca, with Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. funding another $500,000.
Many of the speakers at the ceremony spoke of a new era for Westchester Square and the park, which had fallen into a state ill use and disinvestment in the 1990s.
It was pomp and circumstance as Vacca and Diaz both stressed that grassroots community efforts involving many different sectors helped make the new park a reality.
“We are trying to make this a community where you want to come to” said Vacca. “You want to shop here, you want to have your programming, and you want to feel safe.”
Vacca recalled the bad old days of the 1990s, when criminals used to hide drugs around the park, calling it unacceptable.
“We are going to have performances, we are going to have recreation, we are going to make Owen Dolen the centerpiece of Westchester Square,” he proclaimed.
Diaz recalled that when he took office he had a walk through of the park with business and community leaders to determine what could be done to improve the park and the Square, calling this a “conversation on how to make this neighborhood flourish.”
As a teen attending the nearby Lehman High School, Diaz said he frequented the park and joked he “fell in love a few times” there. He expressed his wish that young people today could have the same experiences he had, and called the new facilities “planning with a purpose.”
Historian Tom Casey, president of the Huntington Free Library in Westchester Square, said at the opening it is difficult to believe how far the park has come in light of how it was a just few years ago.
“It was a scary place to come from, and a place to be avoided,” said Casey. “Now it is a place to be welcomed. When a community takes back its space, that it a big turnaround.”
Sandi Lusk of the Westchester Square Zerega Improvement Organization applauded the renovations to the park, while stressing the need for further upgrades to the Owen Dolen Recreation Center building in the park.
“I have every faith that the same people that made the outside of this park wonderful will do the same for the inside of the recreation center,” said Lusk.
Merchant leader John Bonizio, chairman of the Westchester Square Business Improvement District, said that the park and programming planned for it is another step forward for a revitalized Westchester Square.
“This is the culmination of the planning stage of the park and the beginning of growth of this community,” he said, “with Owen Dolen Park at the center, bringing all the plans together.”
Patrick Rocchio can be reach via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (718) 742-3393