They built it. Will you come? Planners of reimagined Military Park planted lots of flowers. Now they want to plant people.

Pictured above: The “Wars of America” statue at Military Park on the eve of the park’s “soft opening”. The statue is by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who also created Mount Rushmore. Photo by Andaiye Taylor

As of this morning, the fences around historic Military Park were whisked away on a flatbed truck, and the “soft” opening of the refurbished park, so named because of its use as a pre-Revolutionary to Civil War-era military training ground, is officially underway. The official ribbon cutting will take place on June 13th.

Newark residents, nearby office workers, and visitors will be treated to a redesigned park that offers well-manicured lawns, newly planted trees, colorful flowers, and a subtly reconfigured layout. But according to George Roberts, director of programming and events for the park’s developer and operator, the Military Park Partnership (MPP), the most exciting new feature of the park won’t be the flora. It’ll be you.

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Designers changed the layout in subtle but meaningful ways to create a more people-friendly park. Above, more space for portable chairs, made possible by repositioning trees from the middle of the walkway closer to the street. Photo by Andaiye Taylor

“We’re excited about the redesign,” said Roberts, as he gave me a walking tour of the park on the eve of its soft launch. “But where we really excel is with programming. We’re even more excited about that.” Free public activities will begin this coming Monday, May 19th.

Peopling the park is the top priority for MPP, as they look to make it a locus of year-round daily activity. Its operators envision an active, engaging public space with activities occuring end-to-end.

What can visitors expect? The northmost lawn will host an eight-week outdoor movie series that will begin in July, and also be the site of live music performances. The verbally inclined can sign up for poetry open mics, as well. The first one is scheduled for May 21st. And those who crave locally sourced produce can take heart: the park will host farmers’ markets.

There will be fitness programming, including Zumba, workouts with Newark newcomer Mad Cool Fitness, yoga with Newark Yoga Movement, tai chi with Kazi, and collaborations with the nearby YMCA. Visitors can also hone their ping pong skills, and face off with other enthusiasts in a ping pong tournament to be hosted by MPP on May 23rd.

ping pong

Workers assemble ping pong tables on the north lawn of Military Park on the eve of its soft launch. Photo by Andaiye Taylor

The Newark Chess Club, a mentoring non-profit that teaches chess to Newark youth ages 10 to 13, will be on hand for chess instruction, and visitors can look forward to chess and board game tournaments in the park.

And same as midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park which, like the redesigned Military Park, was conceived and developed by Biederman Development Ventures, the park will offer an outdoor reading room. The MPP purchased books from used book sales.

There will be plenty of opportunties for kids to connect with the park, as well. They include arts and crafts sessions and “Imagination Playground”, which will enable kids to create their own play environments using large, portable cubes.

“There are lots of programs around here that serve kids,” Roberts explained, citing programs that draw nearly 50,000 children a year to nearby NJPAC alone as one example. Newark Public Library and Newark Museum are both within walking distance of the park, and the proximity can be a great marketing opportunity to get out the word to parents about kid-friendly activities in the park.

The emphasis on using diverse programming and partnerships with community organizations and small businesses to activate the park puts Military Park on “a short list of parks around the world,” according to Roberts, whose mission is to be a truly accessible and user-friendly public space.

The park looks to attract both residents and nearby workers (there are a number of office towers in the immediate circumference around the park). MPP is also working with the New Jersey Historical Society and the Greater Newark Visitor’s Bureau, both conveniently located directly across the street from the park, to offer history tours – the first one is May 23rd – and other park-based experiences.

The park will also play host to BURG: Jersey Burgers & Taps, a new restaurant from chef Chris Siversen that will offer burgers, salads, local craft beer, wine and other fare seven days a week, starting later this summer. The hope is that the restaurant will both draw a consistent happy hour crowd out to the park, and help sustain a weekend crowd.

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Workers continue construction on the site of the first-ever restaurant in Military Park. The space will be inhabited by BURG: Jersey Burgers & Taps. Photo by Andaiye Taylor

In fact, the park could add a new, more vibrant dimension to the whole of downtown Newark. Notwithstanding its burgeoning, but still small, residential population, the handful of business that remain open and their customers, and weekend commuters, weekend foot traffic downtown is still notoriously low.

Roberts said that parks generally draw a significant share of their traffic from people who live, work, or otherwise happen to be present within a half-mile radius. As a result, drawing out residents from Eleven80, the high-rise apartment just across the street from the park, and other nearby residents would be key to establishing it as a weekend draw, since they’re already within that key radius on weekends.

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Eleven80, a residential high-rise, and the National Newark Building, a commercial highrise, are across the street from Military Park. The park is looking to draw Newarkers from all over the city, but nearby residents and workers can be a reliable source of nearby repeat visitors. Photo by Andaiye Taylor

The MPP is a public-private partnership created by Prudential, the City of Newark, and the MCJ Amelior Foundation, which was founded by Newark native and philanthropist Ray Chambers. While the city assisted with capital improvements in the park, it won’t fund programming and other ongoing operations.

Its redevelopment has been a bit of an odyssey. After original approval in 2004, the park lost funding in 2009. Today’s soft launch is the result of the project’s 2011 reprisal.

Military Park will operate year-round, though it anticipates that activity will slow down in the winter. Its keepers will make seasonal changes to the park’s accoutrements, such as sparkling lights during the holiday season. MPP will employ groundskeepers and 24/7 security to maintain the park for visitors.

The park’s visitors can also expect wi-fi – “a strong, sustained wi-fi connection”, Roberts emphasized – in the coming months. It will also eventually host vendors, similar to the vendors that dot the perimeter of Bryant Park during their holiday marketplace.

More details about the park are available on its website (http://militarypark.com).

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