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Report Card On The Parks

by Anne Schwartz, Mar 21, 2003
 
 

Politicians are reluctant to make specific promises to which they can be held accountable. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, determined to apply business principles to running the city, not only made such promises for what he would do if elected mayor, but he has now issued a "report card" listing the 380 proposals he made and how many of them he has accomplished in his first year.

The report card rated 80 percent of the proposals either "done," "launched," or "to be launched in 2003." But it is interesting to take a closer look at the scores he has given himself to see how the mayor's report card matches the facts.

The 58-page document included more than two dozen proposals, large and small, in the category of parks and open space. The mayor considered seven "done" so far, 15 "launched," and six "not done" or "reconsidered." Mayor Bloomberg has indeed fulfilled many campaign promises on parks in just one year, and has been particularly effective in carrying out promised policy changes and negotiating solutions to difficult situations. Sometimes, especially in the "launched" category, his grades might be a bit padded, since in some cases the only accomplishment is issuing a memo in support of proposed state legislation or contacting another agency for discussions. In other cases, he has just continued existing projects. The mayor also took credit for something that is not actually being done. And one unfulfilled promise, perhaps the most important one, was left out of the report card altogether.

Following is a rundown of some of the park-related campaign promises and what Mayor Bloomberg has or has not done to keep them:

COMMUNITY GARDENS
One of the major park-related achievements of the Bloomberg administration has been negotiating a
settlement of the community garden lawsuit, resolving one of the most bitterly fought battles of the Giuliani era. The lawsuit, by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, had temporarily blocked the city's plans to raze hundreds of community gardens for development. The compromise protected 198 gardens while leaving 114 gardens open to possible future development, subject to a review process. Another 38 gardens, which had already been through the city's land use process, were released for sale or development without further review. Although the final agreement did not please all parties and has left community gardeners with some unanswered questions about the status of the gardens that were saved, it protected hundreds of community green spaces in neighborhoods where parks are scarce.

BLOOMINGDALE PARK
The mayor worked out a compromise between the Staten Island borough president and the parks department that will allow ball fields to be built in Bloomingdale Park, which the mayor promised Staten Island voters even though the project was opposed by environmental groups.

SUPPORT EFFORTS TO TURN THE HIGH LINE INTO A PARK
A mayoral commission appointed to study the feasibility of creating an aerial green promenade on the abandoned West Side rail line "launched" this proposal. Also, in December 2002, the city applied for a Certificate of Interim Trail Use for the High Line from the Surface Transportation Board, reversing the previous administration's efforts to demolish the track.

RETURN CONCESSION FEES TO PARKS
The parks department does not get to keep the $60 million raised through concessions for restaurants, golf courses and other commercial enterprises in the parks; the money goes to the general fund. Mayor Bloomberg promised in the campaign that he would give this money back to the parks department, but nothing has been implemented yet. He did return $2 million collected from corporate sponsorship in the parks to the department - with half the money credited against budget cuts.

FIND ASPHALT AREAS APPROPRIATE FOR ARTIFICIAL TURF TO ALLEVIATE THE SHORTAGE OF BALLFIELDS
Expanding an ongoing program, the parks department installed nine synthetic turf fields on asphalt areas in 2002 and plans to install 21 more in 2003 - although whether this will actually happen because of future budget cuts is anyone's guess.

OPEN CITY HALL PARK
Mayor Giuliani beautifully restored City Hall Park and then kept it off limits to the public, ostensibly because of security concerns. Mayor Bloomberg has reopened most of the park.

DEVELOP A GREENWAY AROUND MANHATTAN
Pieces of this waterfront pedestrian and bicycle route have been built over the last decade, following a plan created by the Department of City Planning in 1993. Bloomberg has given the greenway a large boost through his enthusiastic support. The report card designates this proposal "launched," with a new section on the Harlem River recently opened and an interim route due to open in the summer of 2003. It also says that the parks department is in discussion with the United Nations and various state and city agencies on the next step for completing the long-term route.

ENSURE A PRESENCE IN PARKS WHEN PEOPLE ARE THERE BY HAVING A SECOND SHIFT OF WORKERS ON DUTY
Most park maintenance and operations staff work an early shift, leaving the parks by 3:30 p.m. The department has established a second shift, staffed mostly by seasonal playground associates and Parks Enforcement Patrol officers, to get more employees in the park during times of peak usership. But there is still a very small staff presence in most parks most of the time. (The exceptions are parks with private funding like Central and Bryant parks.) There are just 51 playground associates citywide, one for each city council district, and 158 Parks Enforcement Patrol officers (with 100 actively patrolling the parks) for the city's 1,700 parks. Further budget cuts could eliminate the playground associate positions this summer.

FERRY POINT PARK REMEDIATION
Under the campaign proposal to "clean brownfields that can be used as parks," Mayor Bloomberg took credit for "brownfields remediation work" in Ferry Point Park, a former municipal landfill in the Bronx that is being turned into a championship-level golf course. But in fact, golf course construction has proceeded without the usual remediation techniques generally applied to former landfills and other brownfields sites - no efforts to keep toxic dust stirred up by construction from blowing on nearby residents, no impermeable barriers to seal off the decaying garbage and its load of chemicals, no testing or collecting of the rainwater percolating through the dump. Explosive and possibly contaminated methane gas produced from decomposing trash is being vented, not through tall pipes as is usual, but an open trench that runs through a community park. The "clean-up" consists only of piling on nearly 2 million cubic yards of construction and demolition debris (that the developer gets paid to take), then covering it with soil and grass.

Bloomberg should subtract points from his score for allowing work to proceed without the proper cleanup of the underlying site, endangering the residents of the nearby homes and housing project. He is also leaving the city open to enormous potential liability because the concession contract granted during the Giuliani administration exempts the developer from responsibility for any environmental contamination stemming from the former landfill.

WORK TO COMMIT ONE PERCENT OF THE CITY'S ANNUAL BUDGET TO PARKS
Mayor Bloomberg seems to have forgotten to grade himself on one of the most important promises of his campaign to parks advocates: to double city funding for parks to one percent of the city budget. The city's financial difficulties have obviously prevented him from keeping his pledge, although the parks department now gets an even smaller piece of the pie than in previous years, .0357 percent. But because this promise is absent from the report card, it is impossible to tell if the mayor hopes eventually to fulfill it or is reconsidering.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.


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