Gazing out of floor-to-ceiling glass windows onto Poe Park, Isabel Colon said she couldn’t imagine her week without her Thursday morning fitness class at the park’s new visitor center.
“My body needs it. And I feel great,” said Colon.
One of the things that keeps her coming back, Colon said, is the class’ convenience. Almost every day, she said, she walks to Poe Park to get her day started right.
That’s part of what Mayor Michael Bloomberg had in mind when he handpicked a high-end architect to design the park’s visitor center.
The eccentric structure whose bleak, charcoal-grey exterior and inward-slanting roofs – modeled to look like the raven of gothic poet Edgar Allen Poe’s famous work – conceals a bright indoor space where newcomers attend fitness classes and art exhibits.
But leaders of some local groups are still bitter over the tedious construction process, which shuttered the park for nearly eight years and forced them to find a new home for their summer athletic league and annual Easter Egg Hunt.
Long before construction began, community groups using the park notified the Parks Department that the space, located next door to Poe Cottage, was in a state of disrepair. But instead of better lighting, gates to close the park at night and more youth athletic activities, the group got the Poe Park Visitor Center.
In January, an audit by City Comptroller John Liu revealed that park renovations went $1.2 million over budget and opened nearly two years behind schedule. After budgeting $3 million for renovations, including a visitor center designed by architect Toshiko Mori, the Parks Department stopped listening to community groups, some local leaders charge.
“We weren’t included,” said Bedford-Fordham Housing Corporation Chair John Jenik,
whose nonprofit helps low-income Bronxites find affordable housing. Jenik said his organization had teamed with the Parks Department and a group of local volunteers – the Friends of Poe Park Ravens – to improve the park.
“I guess we just weren’t official enough for them,” Jenik said.
But somewhere along the line, Jenik said, Parks officials grew distant. Tired of waiting, Jenik and his group were forced to take their youth soccer games to a smaller park on Briggs Avenue.
Parks Department officials, however, maintains that they tried to include former park patrons in renovation planning process.
“When the Poe Park Visitor Center was being first being planned,” Parks Department spokesman Zachary Feder stated, “we had arranged for the Bedford-Fordham Housing Corporation and Bronx County Historical Society to help to staff and program the center. After the Center was complete neither group was able to devote the resources they had anticipated, so the Parks Department assumed these responsibilities.”
Bronx native and fitness instructor Annabelle Murillo wanted to do something to combat the high rates of asthma, obesity and diabetes plaguing her community. She proposed starting a fitness program to Lucy Aponte, who manages the front desk at the new visitor center.
“I said, let’s do it!” Aponte recalled.
On a recent cold Thursday morning in March, Murillo addressed a class of six, who lay on yoga mats on the shiny new hardwood.
Neither Murillo nor her students said they had noticed that the building, with its inward-sloping roofs and charcoal grey paint, had been designed to resemble the raven from Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem.
“I could care less about whether or not it looks like a raven,” said Colon. “We’re using it.”