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Politics Kills A Greenway

by Anne Schwartz, Mar 15, 2005
 

The parks department has quietly shelved a fully funded and planned $1.2 million Staten Island greenway that local residents have worked for many years to get built. Borough President James P. Molinaro, who wields tremendous political power on the island and whose support Mayor Michael Bloomberg needs for reelection, is blocking the project because of concerns that it would limit future road-building options.

The route, which goes through residential neighborhoods, would provide a recreational corridor between the waterfront and the island’s wooded interior Greenbelt, and would also link to a greenway system being pieced together in the borough and throughout the city.

The planned path, called the Amundsen Trailway, mostly follows a wooded strip of land that was set aside by Robert Moses for the construction of the Willowbrook Parkway, which was never built. Three studies conducted over the last two decades determined that building the Willowbrook and another proposed highway, the Richmond Parkway, would not alleviate traffic problems in the borough. The rights-of-way for the two unbuilt parkways make a large "X" that intersects in the heart of the Greenbelt.

The land is still mapped for the roadways, however. Local civic and environmental groups have been trying to get the state legislature to "demap" the rights-of-way and turn them over to the parks department, but these efforts have been opposed by Borough President Molinaro.

Although the Amundsen Trailway has been in the works for years and received all the necessary funding and approvals, Molinaro has put a moratorium on construction in the right-of-way until traffic concerns are resolved. "Right now we’re being asked to hold off until this is looked at one more time," said Thomas A. Paulo, parks department Staten Island borough commissioner. "In any part of the city, it’s very difficult to create a new right-of-way. Before we move forward on having a new use, it’s good to take a look at it." The borough president declined to be interviewed for this story.

Trailway advocates say that the three studies are still valid. "The zoning and land use is what it is. The street use is what it is. Development patterns are what they are. It’s the same as in 1994, 1988, and 1981 [when the studies were conducted]," said John Rooney, chair of the Amundsen Trailway committee of the Richmondtown & Clarke Avenue Civic Association. He said that the huge burst of development the island has experienced is coming from a totally different area. "The predominate direction of traffic demand is opposite from the Willowbrook Parkway corridor."

A LONG ROAD

For decades, residents of the area have envisioned a loop where people could run, stroll or bicycle between two of the island’s well-loved open spaces, the seashore at Great Kills and the hilly woods of the Greenbelt, where it is hard to believe you are in New York City. Where there is now a muddy, uneven footpath through seemingly abandoned land — the kind of place people tend to dump garbage — there would be a properly surfaced and drained bicycle and pedestrian pathway, marked by signs.

Trailway advocates also envision how the route might coordinate with the city Department of Environmental Protection’s Bluebelt storm water drainage system. The area has many streams and wetlands and is prone to flooding. The Bluebelt system preserves and enhances these wet areas to channel, collect, and filter storm water flows, saving the city billions of dollars while preserving open space and wildlife habitat. One recently completed Bluebelt project was finalized to coordinate with the planned pathway.

After decades of effort by residents and the creation of a detailed conceptual plan by the Richmondtown & Clarke Avenue Civic Association, in 1991 the Staten Island Greenbelt Master Plan included the Amundsen route as part of a bicycle and pedestrian trail system in the Greenbelt parks. The trail is also included in the Department of City Planning’s citywide greenway plan (In PDF Format) and former Borough President Molinari’s Staten Island bikeway plan.

The state allocated federal transportation funding covering 80 percent of the trail’s construction and the city approved its 20 percent contribution. In 2001, the parks department released detailed drawings and specifications; by 2003 all the required reviews were completed and permits obtained. It was to be the first section of the Greenbelt trail system built.

Instead, the parks department now plans to construct another portion of the Greenbelt trail system first, a loop circling La Tourette Park. A new section is being added to complete the loop, using funding originally allocated to the Amundsen Trailway. "We are eager to get any portion of this now, because right now it is very difficult to do any kind of biking on the road in Staten Island anymore," said Borough Commissioner Paulo.

Questions have been raised, however, about the feasibility of the additional section because it would go through steep terrain unsuitable for bicycling, as well as wetlands. The new trail also does not provide the long-desired recreational link between the Greenbelt and the waterfront.

Neighborhood residents who have spent years cleaning up the right-of-way and trying to make the trail a reality are discouraged, but have not given up their dream. Chuck Perry is a retired teacher who lives across the street from the right of way and has long been active in the effort. He said, "Look at communities like in Long Island — they have these amenities. This is recreation for the average family, for the average citizen."

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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