Â Even against the backdrop of the city's fiscal crisis, capital investment in the
city's parks has continued. Just in the past month, the papers have been full
of good news for parks. On October 30, the city announced a $25 million public/private
initiative to improve 16 parks in four neighborhoods in Harlem, upper Manhattan/Bronx,
Brooklyn, and Queens. The first of 13 new or restored parks planned to help revive
lower Manhattan opened the following week. And just a few days after that, to
the amazement of local residents and the parks department, Mayor Michael Bloomberg
worked out an agreement with Keyspan to buy the site of the old Elmhurst gas tanks
for a park, land the utility originally planned to sell to the developer of a Home
To maintain its growing inventory of parkland, the parks department still has
a much lower operating budget and less than half the fulltime staff it had two
decades ago. The city never restored funding for park maintenance and recreation
during the economic boom of the 1990s, and has further cut the budget during
the current fiscal crisis. Although the Parks department has become more efficient
and has made good use of an army of workers in federally funded job-training
programs as well as dedicated volunteers, most observers agree that it
needs more resources to properly care for its green and built infrastructure.
But unlike the last fiscal crisis in the 1970s, when the parks were virtually
abandoned, the city is continuing to restore and build new parks.
The creation over the last decades of scores of park friends groups and a large
roster of volunteers -- there are now 60,000 volunteers registered with Partnership
for Parks -- has built up a critical mass of support for parks and a resource
for new ideas and partnerships. The efforts of park advocates to educate
the public and elected officials about the economic, health, and social
benefits of parks have also begun sink in.
"There is a chorus of thousands of voices saying that parks are important,"
said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "I think that represents a sea change
in recognizing the role parks play in the city physically,
spiritually, and economically. Parks are now on the radar of council members,
state senators, assembly members - even members of Congress are talking about
the importance of parks and allocating money."
Both Governor George Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg are strong supporters of parks,
as are a number of city officials. The city's continued investment
in parks "reflects the mayor's genuine interest in and concern
for parks, which was a distinct part of his campaign platform," Commissioner
Benepe said. "He gets parks."
NEW PARK PROJECTS
TARGETING NEIGHBORHOOD PARKS
The public/private partnership recently announced by the city focuses on groups
of parks in four areas that already have a base of community involvement:
historic Harlem, Red Hook in Brooklyn, Astoria and Long Island City, and the
upper Manhattan and Bronx neighborhoods linked by the High Bridge. The initiative
combines $20 million for capital improvements - projects that are already funded
or are expected to be funded over the course of four years - with $5 million
raised from corporations and foundations by the non-profit City
Parks Foundation and administered by Partnerships
for Parks, a joint program of the foundation and the Parks department.
So far, private funding has flowed mostly to the city's showcase
parks, the heavily visited parks in Manhattan and other affluent areas. This
new initiative aims to use private investment strategically, to build up and
empower community groups so they can attract more resources, both public and
private, for the continued improvement of their parks.
"The project is based on the premise that every park needs three things
to be successful capital infrastructure, adequate ongoing maintenance, and community
involvement," said David Rivel, Executive Director of the City Parks Foundation.
"If you look at any successful park anywhere in the city or the country,
you'll see that it has an active group of citizens who care about it and work
for the park."
The private funds will be used to bring more activities into the parks, including
concerts in Jackie Robinson, Marcus Garvey and Highbridge parks, track and field
instruction in Astoria and Red Hook parks, and puppet shows, readings, and performing
arts for kids in historic Harlem Parks. The funding also pays for a staff member
in each of the four neighborhoods to help organize community groups and get
more people involved. "Once you have a dedicated core of park users who've
been attracted to a park," Rivel said, "you can begin to organize
them into an ongoing friends group." Partnerships for Parks will support
the effort with technical assistance and workshops on things like fundraising,
working with the parks department, and making a map and guide of the park.
The parks department will direct the restoration projects in consultation with
the community, and will continue to provide the maintenance, programs, and security
already committed to those parks. Considering the present poor condition of
some of these parks, there is a question about whether the current maintenance
levels will be enough keep the restored areas from deteriorating. Rivel said
that while "we all wish the parks department could have more money,"
he believes that an organized community group is what makes a difference in
keeping a park well maintained.
PARKS HELPING REVIVE DOWNTOWN
Last spring, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki announced that the Lower Manhattan
Development Corporation had allocated $25 million to renovate or create 13
new parks in lower Manhattan. "The notion was that we could very quickly
improve the quality of life in lower Manhattan by making it more attractive
for residents, workers, and tourists, the three crucial ingredients for reviving
lower Manhattan," said Commissioner Benepe. The plan calls for the completion
of six parks by the spring of 2004 and the rest by the end of 2004.
On November 5, the city opened the first of these spaces, Drumgoole Plaza,
six months ahead of schedule. The space, next to Pace University underneath
the entrance ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge, was an eyesore, an empty lot used
for parking cars and frequented by the homeless. The plaza now has trees, shrubs
and perennial beds, new paving, benches, and lights. Pace University and its
student environmental club, THINK Environment, worked closely with the city
to make the plaza a reality. The university paid for the installation of underground
water pipes and lighting, and will supply water and electricity. The club, which
volunteers weekly in parks around the city, has taken on the responsibility
of weeding, watering, and other maintenance, with tools and materials to be
provided by the Parks department. Vlada Smorgonov, a Pace senior who is founder
and president of the club, said that she hopes at some point Pace will hire
a gardener to oversee the plaza and other green spaces the club would like to
see created on campus.
TANKS FOR THE PARK
It may be a while before a park is actually built on the site of the Elmhurst
gas tanks, once infamous symbols of how far the traffic had backed up on the Long
Island Expressway. But residents of Maspeth, Middle Village and Elmhurst are
ecstatic that Mayor Bloomberg stepped in and worked out a deal with Keyspan
to purchase the site. The community and elected officials of both parties, including
Republican City Councilmember Dennis Gallagher and Representative Joseph Crowley,
a Democrat, had been fighting Keyspan's plan to sell the land to
a developer planning to build a big-box commercial complex, including a Home
Depot. Opponents said the development would drive out small retailers and bring
even more traffic and pollution to an area that is already crossed
by the expressway and has truck routes through local streets.
Ten days after starting discussions with Keyspan, Mayor Bloomberg reached an
agreement with the company for the city to purchase the site for a price between
one dollar and a million dollars, a fraction of its market value. "We need
stores, we need economic development," Mayor Bloomberg said in the Daily
News, "but the parks also really make an enormous difference in this city."
"We were facing formidable opposition and big money," said Bob Holden,
president of the Juniper
Park Civic Association, which had fought to stop the commercial
development. "This happened lightning fast. It's to the
mayor's credit that he was able to do this."
The details of the agreement with Keyspan still have to be finalized, and the
site needs additional environmental remediation. Community members say they
would like to see a park for passive recreational use, with trees to filter
the pollution and noise from the expressway. City Council District 29, which
includes these neighborhoods, has just .28 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents,
one of the lowest ratios of any city council district, according to the parks
profile (In pdf format) compiled by New Yorkers for Parks. Parks Commissioner Benepe
said that the site is roughly six acres, about the size of Madison Park in Manhattan.
"I've never seen an area this size in a very densely developed residential
neighborhood opening up. It's a complete tabula rasa, not a thing on it, "
he said. "It's almost flabbergasting to think about designing a park from
Anne Schwartz, a writer specializing in environmental issues, was formerly the editor of the Audubon Activist and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.
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