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 Depot.
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 scratch."
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.