Gotham Gazette Thu, 02 Jul 2020 15:34:24 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: Parks, Beaches and Open Space in the Coronavirus Recovery 5 mayor first section

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

June 10, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Parks, Beaches and Open Space in the Coronavirus Recovery

adam ganser 150Adam Ganser, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks, joined the show to discuss the city's approach to parks, beaches, and other open space during the coronavirus pandemic and after.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

Max & Murphy · Episode 229: Parks, Beaches And Open Space In The Coronavirus Recovery

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Parks, Beaches and Open Space in the Coronavirus Recovery Wed, 10 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Mayor and Council Speaker Differ on Creating Open Space, Enforcing Social Distancing Amid Coronavirus Shutdown speaker co jo covid update

Mayor & Speaker at a coronavirus briefing (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Governor Andrew Cuomo on Sunday gave New York City officials a 24-hour deadline to provide plans for enforcing social distancing in public spaces as the coronavirus continues to rage through the city and the governor said there was too much group activity in the five boroughs under his “pause” orders. Mayor Bill de Blasio has since announced some of the measures his administration is taking but his approach differs from what the New York City Council under Speaker Corey Johnson has proposed. 

Despite repeated requests, neither the mayor’s office nor the governor’s office provided the de Blasio administration’s enforcement plan to Gotham Gazette. The City Council did make its own plan available and it goes much further than what de Blasio announced during his near-daily coronavirus briefings earlier this week.

Cuomo had expressed disappointment with the early days under his tighter stay-at-home and social distancing orders, and repeatedly stated that he had demanded a plan from de Blasio and Johnson for greater enforcement, especially in parks, while also suggesting that the city should open more streespace to pedestrian use.

De Blasio said Tuesday that the city’s enforcement efforts had begun, with NYPD patrols across the five boroughs attempting to ensure that people stay at least six feet apart to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, unless they are members of the same immediate family. Though people can still go to parks and playgrounds, the mayor has warned that he will close them if people do not follow the city’s guidance.

“[W]hat we are seeing is broad adherence to the rules and we're going to make clear through NYPD enforcement and enforcement by many other city agencies that we must have a real respect for these rules,” he said at a Tuesday news conference. “And anyone who is not following the rules will be quickly corrected. They'll be warned, they'll be educated, and NYPD will be out making very clear to people, using our patrol officers and with messages that'll be electronically transmitted all over parks as well as all the person to person contact that we need people to deal with this new reality of social distancing.”

The mayor said he had agreed with the state and City Council to wait till Saturday (March 28) to decide whether playgrounds would remain open. “We will be doing all the enforcement, but if by the end of Saturday, it is not sufficiently clear that New Yorkers are following these new rules, at that point we'll be prepared to shut down playgrounds for the foreseeable future,” he said. The city has already begun removing basketball hoops at 80 courts where people had refused to abide by social distancing guidelines, the mayor announced Wednesday, out of 1,700 across the city. 

He also announced a pilot program to close a small number of streets to vehicular traffic to provide pedestrians more space for social distancing while getting needed fresh air and movement. From Friday through Monday, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., traffic will be barred on Park Avenue between 28th and 34th Streets in Manhattan; On Bushwick Avenue from Johnson to Flushing in Brooklyn; on 34th Avenue from 73rd Street to 80th Street in Queens; and on the Grand Concourse between East Burnside and 184th Street in the Bronx. That pilot will be closely monitored by the NYPD and reevaluated, de Blasio said, while some worried he was just creating new opportunity for people to too-closely congregate and others said his initiative was so miniscule to be not even worth bothering.

Council Speaker Johnson said in an interview on PIX11 on Thursday that he would have liked to have seen the street closures be more expansive. “I want it to be a bigger area, more streets, but one of the issues that we’ve run into is the lack of personnel that we have to make sure that those areas remain safe, that you’re not seeing crowding there and that you are protecting folks when you are closing streets,” he said, apparently referencing, in part, the fact that the NYPD is starting to see a significant chunk of its workforce out sick or quarantined. “But I wanted wider swathes, longer avenues to actually accommodate folks that may be crowding into parks,” he said. 

The Council’s social distancing plan, a two-page document, also opts for more restrictive measures. It calls for closing and locking all children’s playgrounds, athletic fields and courts; and for the removal of all tennis nets, basketball hoops and any other equipment that is not being cleaned for the entire duration. The plan also suggests removing barbecues in parks. 

The plan acknowledges what Johnson raised in the PIX11 interview, that staffing may be the biggest hurdle. It calls for increased enforcement “using creative models that do not lead to over-policing or profiling,” including increasing the number of park enforcement police, redeploying 1,000-1,500 parks personnel from maintenance work and recreation centers to bolster enforcement, reassigning school crossing guards to parks, and speeding up the launch of the NYPD’s Youth Coordination Officer program to recruit more people to help educate the public about new social distance rules. 

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Johnson said, “Opening a couple of streets per borough to pedestrians is a good first step, but we need to provide more open public spaces for New Yorkers. Social distancing is a key component in the fight to mitigate the effects of this unprecedented public health crisis. As we battle this pandemic, this initiative once it is expanded could provide some relief to the city's parks as individuals look for places where to walk, exercise and get some fresh air while at the same time taking precautions to protect themselves and fellow New Yorkers."

It’s not the first time since the coronavirus outbreak in New York City that Johnson and de Blasio have disagreed. The speaker called for both closing the city’s public schools and more restrictive stay-at-home orders days before the mayor adopted those positions.

The Council plan also outlines various ways to create new open spaces, particularly in dense parts of the city that lack existing open and green space. Besides restricting vehicles on streets, it suggests expanding pedestrian plazas based off the city’s Summer Streets and Play Streets initiatives and looking at the streets under those initiatives for traffic closures. That push lines up with Johnson’s running focus on creating more space for pedestrians and bike-riders, a key piece of the “streets master plan” legislation he passed last year.

Besides public areas, the Council also recommended that the city look at the possibility of utilizing private spaces such as college campuses with outdoor space, botanical gardens, and finding recreation space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn Army Terminal, or Bush Terminal. 

The plan envisions a mass-media campaign to inform New Yorkers of the new rules, with signage at all parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields, and a multilingual citywide PSA campaign.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Mayor and Council Speaker Differ on Creating Open Space, Enforcing Social Distancing Amid Coronavirus Shutdown Fri, 27 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
NYCHA Open Space: The Next City Park Frontier 1 nycha fro

Samuel N. Bennerson 2nd Playground could be a model (Google, 2019)

New Yorkers have been building parks in the most unexpected places. Popular parks have risen over rotting piers on the waterfront; on an elevated and abandoned rail freight line; and even in the middle of busy traffic intersections in Times Square. Many skeptics doubted that anyone would want to sunbathe along the East River, eat a snack in the middle of Times Square, or walk on a rickety steel structure 30 feet above the streets. The skeptics were wrong. Millions have flocked to new spaces in strange places.

There is an even larger and more accessible reservoir of untapped space for new city parks: the thousands of acres of lawns and trees that surround NYCHA towers. NYCHA developments are often 70 or 80 percent open space; yet much of this open space feels unnecessarily isolated from vibrant avenues and neighborhoods. 

The volume of land available for new parks within NYCHA, if redesigned as “activated” neighborhood parks, could have a transformative impact on the city’s quality of life.

The Regional Plan Association, for instance, in TIme to Act, has highlighted the potential: “There are several places where NYCHA open space and NYC Parks open space could be combined into a larger community asset managed by the Parks Department. This would allow NYCHA to benefit from the City, and the City to benefit from NYCHA.” 

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Johnson Houses, like most NYCHA projects, has open space and tree cover that reduces temperatures and encourages air circulation. But is this the best we can do for city or NYCHA residents? (photo by the author)

Good Intentions; Lost Promise
For NYCHA’s founding designers and administrators (in the 1930s), the space around towers served primarily as a conduit for air and light to resident apartments. Public housing was a powerful tool for attacking congested tenement neighborhoods; open spaces were an afterthought. 

Landscape architects limited recreational uses to passively enjoyed greens with benches and small playgrounds for the little ones. Active recreational elements such as large ball courts or fields were added later and only sporadically under pressure from residents and recreation specialists. Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, in fact, lambasted NYCHA administrators for failing to provide enough active recreation; he made a point of putting a few NYC Parks adjoining, and sometimes inside, NYCHA superblocks.

When NYCHA projects were full of young families, and crime was low, kids and seniors lived an enthusiastic and reasonably successful outdoor life (from the 1930s to 1960s) on the grounds between the towers. In an era before air conditioning, summers were particularly active on NYCHA properties. 

A changing city and society, however, undermined the original logic of providing such vast open spaces. Rising crime and gang territoriality cut into the liveliness of NYCHA outdoor spaces from the 1960s onwards; many concerned families kept their kids indoors for safety. Air conditioning and electronic entertainment kept children and families inside even when safety wasn’t an issue. Many green areas were poorly maintained or paved over as other maintenance priorities emerged. Neighbors stayed out due to fear, even when NYCHA spent millions on new play equipment, benches, paths, fences, and fountains.

The 710 playgrounds still run by NYCHA directly have been a sore point for managers. The pressure to maintain multiple play areas within a single development not only reduces the density of children on equipment (reducing the fun!), but demands a level of maintenance staffing NYCHA has struggled to maintain due to federal budget cuts. Nor does NYCHA have a recreation staff that can draw in non-NYCHA residents to events or activities.

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Typical underutilized playgrounds in East Harlem public housing projects. (photos by the author)

A City Parks Network in NYCHA: Building on a Tradition
There are solid reasons to believe that a new network of NYC Parks on NYCHA open spaces will be a success for the simple reason that many NYC Parks have thrived for decades in NYCHA settings. 

The Samuel N. Bennerson 2nd Playground of Manhattan’s Amsterdam Houses, for instance, has been an NYC Park since it opened in 1949: “The property, three-quarters of an acre in extent, was acquired by the New York City Housing Authority and is for the families in the project and the residents of the surrounding congested community,” wrote the New York Times in 1949. The language of shared facilities -- between NYCHA and the surrounding community -- is reflected today in the edge location. The Parks Department started with playground equipment there and added basketball facilities in 1982.

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NYCHA buildings surround Bennerson on two sides, but the park fronts an active street that helps draw in outsiders. (Google)

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New Playground at Bennerson (NY1)

The Parks Department let Bennerson decline, but NYCHA residents and community leaders demanded upgrades. The park’s recent renovation was a multi-million-dollar project of former Upper West Side City Council Member Gale Brewer (now Manhattan Borough President) and her successor, Council Member Helen Rosenthal. Thanks to city capital funds, the park has been renovated to a high standard with two new basketball courts, a new playground, and cooling spray fountain. Community basketball programs thrive. Above all, the park fronts on a busy cross street and welcomes outsiders through signage and fun design elements. 

To get a sense of the impressive, large-scale opportunities presented by NYCHA open spaces, consider Bushwick Houses. There, NYC Parks maintains a pool and playground within the Bushwick development in Brooklyn. The playground stretches along one edge of the development and provides an active, protected edge to the excellent pool complex deeper within the development. There is also a high-quality baseball diamond adjoining the pool.

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Bushwick pool, playground, and ball field all within a single NYCHA project 

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The Bushwick playground run by the Parks Department aligns with the street and community

Carving out new NYC Parks from the vast NYCHA domain, as these examples illustrate, represents a chance to reknit valuable open space into neighborhoods. The parcels at the edges of NYCHA projects, alongside active streets and sidewalks, stand a good chance of attracting neighbors because these edges feel (and often are) more secure. Adding new types of recreational options, and a NYC Parks label, will send a welcome message to surrounding communities. Many politicians also prefer to support projects of wider benefit: as a result, the parks run by the Parks Department are likely to be better maintained.

New Parks for the Next Generation of New Yorkers
Public open spaces suitable for parks are seemingly scarce in New York City. In 2016, for instance, the city spent $160 million to buy industrial land for a single new Williamsburg park. But city officials have overlooked a more abundant and lower cost source of parkland. NYCHA open spaces are flat, conveniently located for transit, and shovel ready.

NYCHA residents are also likely to support the effort because parks enhance livability. Adding NYC Parks to public housing, moreover, doesn’t preclude future infill, redevelopment, or RAD conversion: there is more than enough land for both new parks and a variety of redesign strategies. 

Above all, upgrading selected NYCHA grounds to NYC Parks could be transformational for many neighborhoods lacking in community amenities. Parks could have comfort stations, small stores or kiosks, and for-profit enterprises like climbing walls that would enliven city living and help cover park maintenance. The many activities that animate the Brooklyn waterfront parks (and help defray their maintenance costs) are a great model. Just imagine climbing walls, rinks, small outdoor cafes, new pools, or other facilities that would enliven NYCHA grounds and surrounding neighborhoods.

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The grey building in the background is a densely developed new affordable housing project (The Carolina) next to NYCHA's Clinton Houses in East Harlem (photo by the author)

High-quality open spaces are needed more than ever as the city becomes more crowded with buildings and people. The new apartment towers sprouting near NYCHA towers, for instance, contain relatively small apartments and tiny courtyards. Some newcomers may venture into NYCHA projects, but they likely won’t feel welcome or inspired given the infrastructure; many more will trek a long way for a distant park or other neighborhood amenities. Wouldn’t it make sense to upgrade adjacent NYCHA open spaces to help meet the need for recreation on a community-wide basis? Of course it would.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Professor of Urban Policy and Planning, Hunter College is author of Public Housing That Worked, How States Shaped Postwar America: State Government and Urban Policy, and a co-curator of the HOUSING DENSITY  show.

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NYCHA Open Space: The Next City Park Frontier Wed, 18 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Veterans Stand Up for Our National Parks, Time for the Federal Government To Do So Too vets parks mbb

(photo: @missioncontinue)

The Statue of Liberty has stood as a symbol of American values for more than a century. Throughout its life in New York Harbor, the landmark has welcomed immigrants to the United States and served as a historical resource for millions.

It embodies the values that have driven our nation from its founding and that our military veterans have dedicated their lives to protect — that of freedom, acceptance, and hard work, all in search of the American Dream.

Since the National Parks’ founding, United States veterans have served as their stewards – protecting and caring for public lands since before the National Parks Service was established in 1916. These veterans created many of the roads, trails, and other infrastructure that visitors to the parks still enjoy today.

Yet, like many National Parks, the Statue of Liberty, the embodiment of those ideals, is currently lagging under $90.2 million of deferred maintenance needs — or maintenance requests that have been put off for a year or more. Nationwide, the National Park Service reported a total of nearly $12 billion of deferred maintenance last year. If we fail to address these needs, they will only get worse and costlier.

The Mission Continues empowers veterans to become advocates for positive impact in communities and has partnered with the National Parks Service and National Parks Conservation Association since 2015 to tackle deferred maintenance projects at parks across the country. Through countless service projects, they’ve restored trails at Sequoia National Park, revitalized campgrounds at Dry Tortuga National Park, constructed new benches for the Statue of Liberty’s Liberty Island, and removed blighted structures while beautifying the grounds at Ellis Island through landscaping and fresh coats of paint.

According to the Ellis Island Park Service, just one day of volunteer service by The Mission Continues can help clear over two months’ worth of the deferred maintenance backlog. These veteran-led volunteers are on the ground, continuing the work of stewarding and improving public lands for future generations, just as the generations of veterans before them did.

However, veterans and volunteer groups alone cannot address the staggering $12 billion in deferred maintenance needs of our National Parks. Luckily, there is bipartisan support in Congress to fix our parks with the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act (H.R. 1225), which would address $6.5 billion in deferred maintenance needs in a limited five-year span.

This sound legislation boasts 329 House Representatives as co-sponsors—and it is not just Congress that has demonstrated strong support. A recent survey found that more than 82 percent of Americans back this legislation. It is rare to find such broad support for anything in Congress, so House leadership should move forward on issues where there is common ground and broad public support.

If Congress is truly committed to America’s veterans and the values they fight for, it will do all it can to protect and preserve those values at home. By addressing deferred maintenance at our National Parks through the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, Congress will ensure the safety of visitors, honor veterans’ rich history of serving public lands, protect our values, and ensure that parks and their programs thrive at the Statue of Liberty and across the country.

Mary Beth Bruggeman is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and President of The Mission Continues. On Twitter @mb_bruggeman & @missioncontinue.

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Veterans Stand Up for Our National Parks, Time for the Federal Government To Do So Too Thu, 12 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
A Better Trail to New Rail and Parkland in Queens queenslink rendering

QueensLink rendering

The Rockaway Beach Branch right-of-way is a 3.5-mile, skinny strip of land that holds the key to transforming our borough in two fundamental ways. First, it will connect north and south Queens with the rest of the city in an environmentally sustainable way. Second, it will create up to 33 new acres of park space adding value to local neighborhoods and the entire city.

This dual-purpose project is called QueensLink.

It was disappointing to read “A Greenway for Queens” (December 5), where the authors continue to deny the need for better transportation. While the Manhattan-based Trust for Public Land apparently believes Queens doesn’t need more transit, riders and residents, who face some of the longest commutes in the nation, would disagree.

The QueensLink would bring travel time from Howard Beach to Midtown Manhattan down from over an hour to 45 minutes as well as create faster trips throughout the borough and to Brooklyn.

The authors repeat the myth that new transit and new parks can’t be built along this corridor, but this belies the simple fact that in most other places using land for both uses is common. In Oakland, CA, the BART system was built along an old freight rail line that was converted to rapid transit with land at ground level used for a parkway. Miami, Vancouver, Boston, and Atlanta have all incorporated parks along their transit lines. QueensLink would create up to 33 acres of new park space connecting north and south Queens.

Queens has 2.3 million inhabitants but the fewest subway miles per resident of the four boroughs with subway access. Roads like Woodhaven Boulevard. and Van Wyck Expressway are constantly congested while buses are overcrowded and average just 8–10 mph. Subways are the fastest, cleanest, and most efficient way to move many people great distances.

While adding a modest 3.5 miles to the system, the value is most apparent in the connections the QueensLink offers. Finally, riders could get from north to south Queens on one train without having to ride through Manhattan and Brooklyn. Brooklyn riders could access jobs in Queens more easily. The QueensLink would connect to every east-west transit line in Queens to offer the most options for commuters.

The status quo of pitting two sides against one another so nothing is ever done has to end. At this critical juncture in our borough’s history we need individuals and organizations that will rise above the NIMBYism of the last generation. We need thought leaders and elected officials with vision and the courage to advocate for projects that achieve the greater good rather than continue to protect the narrow interests of the well-heeled and well-connected few.

When you have a valuable public asset like the Rockaway Beach Branch right-of-way it is crucially important to analyze what use or uses represent the greatest public good. We have one shot at getting this right, so let’s take an objective look at that question and see where the facts lead us.

The MTA released its long-delayed Rockaway Beach Branch reactivation study last month and the conclusions were gratifying. The MTA determined that reactivating the line as a subway from Queens Blvd., Rego Park to Howard Beach, JFK Airport was feasible. The study also determined that 47,000 riders a day would use the line, a conservative figure since it does not include connecting passengers.

Much of the extra costs included by the MTA were due to their extended projected construction schedule of ten years that should take no more than two to three. While the total MTA number associated with the project was $8 billion, the hard construction costs are about $1.6 billion. Experts have estimated that a design-build approach should result in a total cost of about $2 billion. Still a formidable number but a more realistic one.

Even with lower costs, building the rail and park will require thinking outside the box. QueensLink is developing a new funding strategy that incorporates transit-oriented development and value capture through a public-private partnership.

QueensLink takes inspiration from the LIRR Third Track, a large rail infrastructure project that, like the Rockaway Beach Branch, was bogged down by small thinking for decades. Now this $2.6 billion, 9.5-mile project is underway and on-time and on-budget. Local communities along the rail played a big part in the planning and design, which ultimately led to its success.

QueensLink represents an investment in transit equity that will help people reach education, employment, and recreational opportunities that were out-of-reach before. It is also fully aligned with city and state environmental initiatives to reduce congestion on our roads and the carbon emissions that come with it.

Queens is now at the crossroads. The borough’s residents and elected officials will soon have to decide if we will rise to the challenge of working together for our common good or against each other to our common detriment. The good news is that we don’t have to decide between a rail and more green space, a well-designed QueensLink can and should provide both.

Rick Horan is the Executive Director of QueensLink and Andrew Lynch is the Chief Design Officer. On Twitter @thequeenslink.

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A Better Trail to New Rail and Parkland in Queens Wed, 11 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
A Greenway for Queens agreenway

(rendering: DLANDstudio)

In the heart of Queens there is a 3.5-mile strip of abandoned railroad track that represents the promise of transformation. No train has traversed its overgrown rails since 1962. A mature forest of trees towers above the derelict tracks. Weeds and wildflowers poke up amid the trash that has been dumped there.

It is a space that could better serve some of New York City’s most diverse communities and show that every neighborhood deserves a great park and a safe place away from cars to walk, run, and cycle. 

The Trust for Public Land, Friends of the QueensWay, and the Queens Chamber of Commerce are solidly behind a plan to develop this neglected swath of industrial infrastructure into an imaginative greenway with outdoor classrooms, tree-canopied walkways, picnic areas, bike paths, jogging trails, four-season landscaping, and year-round nature-based programs.

A greenway park will carve a calm, welcoming river of plants and paths through Central Queens; improve air quality; moderate increasing summer temperatures along its route; create a safe right-of way for schoolchildren; provide traffic-free pedestrian and bike routes to existing transit hubs; extend the beautiful oak forest and lively amenities into communities; and stimulate the surrounding area’s economy and businesses.

The QueensWay will be a great New York park that takes its character from the diverse communities that it ties together.  

It’s time for Mayor de Blasio to say “Yes” to The QueensWay and include preliminary funding in the upcoming city capital plan. Further delay, while other boroughs see investments in greenways, is unjustified and unfair.

For decades, the 47-acre abandoned line in Queens has slipped deeper into decay as decisions about its fate were debated and delayed. But a critical evaluation of the potentials and possibilities for the rail line is in—and the evidence is clear. The MTA took a hard look at the cost and the benefits of rebuilding the railroad corridor for rail traffic and determined the prohibitive price tag for railroad restoration could exceed $9 billion, and that any transit benefit from reopening the line would be minimal at best.

That sticker shock doesn’t even factor in the additional costs and impact on the homes, businesses and commuters that would be affected. As the MTA noted but did not factor into its cost estimate, construction would take years and would close roads, sacrifice community spaces like the Forest Hills Little League facility, disrupt and slow service on existing train lines, force nearby residents to cope with an active railway just steps from their houses, evict commercial tenants beneath the viaduct, clear cut a winding stand of 60-year-old trees, and alienate at least seven acres that are designated parkland. 

That finding—that we can’t justify the high cost of reconstructing the 3.5-mile corridor as a useful rail line—removed the last questions about the direction we should take. A park on the old rail line is shovel-ready and the long-unused bridges, rails, and viaducts can be adapted without major disruption to the surrounding area. The QueensWay will cost less than two percent of the cost of rail reactivation. Most important, the idea has widespread support in the community.

This is the moment to acknowledge the extraordinary gift of an open, expansive linear greenway and reclaim the desolate space as a place for people. A greenway for Queens is a celebration of resilience, of the trees and plants asserting themselves along the old rail line, of the people eager to embrace an opportunity to transform an eyesore into a dynamic resource, and of a borough whose time has come. Now is the time to make The Queensway happen.

Carter Strickland is New York State Director of The Trust for Public Land; Travis Terry is President of Friends of QueensWay; and Thomas J. Grech is President & CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.

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A Greenway for Queens Wed, 04 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Local City Council Members Must Head Back to Drawing Board on East River Park Plan efmfnl2xsaezfd7

(photo: @ERPAction)

An Open Letter

Dear City Council Members Carlina Rivera, Margaret Chin, and Keith Powers:

You have indicated that on Thursday you will vote for the flood control plan that will demolish East River Park and rebuild it 8-10 feet higher over five years. This is a $1.45 billion, five-year project that will destroy more than a mile of coastline park that is vital to our neighborhood, the un-wealthy end of the Lower East Side and East Village. I urge you to change your vote to “no” on Nov. 14. Here’s why: 

Once this plan passes the City Council, you will lose all bargaining power. The city will not be obliged to reply to the many unanswered questions or do any of the things it has promised to look into, such as these points: 

Interim Flood Protection
The city promises to study temporary flood protection while constructing permanent solutions. If you vote to accept this East Side Coastal Resiliency plan, the city will not be obliged to offer a single sandbag through years of hurricane seasons (the city says three years—but we’ll talk about timelines later).  

Phased Construction
During phased construction (keeping sections of the park open during construction), the entire mile-plus promenade along the river will be closed for at least two years. That is so that the eight-foot flood wall can be built. If pile driving is going on the entire length of the park, the promised 42 percent of the areas still open will be unbearably noisy. In addition, there will be no access to the river at any point along the water for those years (and likely much longer—again, see timelines). As the barrier rises, we will be imprisoned behind a metal wall. Do you find that current phasing scenario acceptable? Your neighborhoods will be horrified when they figure it out. 

That is leaving aside whether it’s acceptable at all because phased construction will still destroy the whole park—just over a longer period of time than closing the whole park at once would have. We are proposing an environmentally and socially conscious alternative. 

Health Risks
The dust from digging up contaminated soil and adding layer after layer of landfill will clog our lungs. Our Lower East Side/East Village neighborhood already suffers high rates of asthma and 9/11-related respiratory troubles. The 1,000 trees that help us breathe will be gone. We need picnic areas, ball fields, greenery, and river access for our mental and physical health.

Alternate Park Spaces—Mitigation
Have you gotten the greenway you have been requesting to substitute for the loss of the biking/running/strolling path along the river? No, you’ve gotten a promise to study the possibility of a protected bike lane. Have you gotten the free ferries from Corlears Hook to Governors Island you’ve been requesting? No, that’s not even mentioned in the agreement you reached with the city as announced on Tuesday. Are you satisfied with a few playgrounds repainted or covered with artificial turf? Are you satisfied with the progress of greening of the streets and creating of play spaces and BBQ areas to substitute for the loss of mature trees and all the heavily used picnic, lounging, and natural areas we have now in East River Park? You should know that the thousands of saplings promised for our streets and the new park will not come close to the size of the 1,000 lost trees.

Do you trust the five-year timeline the city has provided? The city has no answers to how long it takes for the eight feet of fill to settle. They do not know how long digging up and wrapping ConEd lines will take or how to deal with the contaminated soil that will be dug up. This is acceptable to you? 

Even if the city could tell us how long the above complications will take, you know the city is not good with deadlines. Surely you see that in the tiny Luther Gulick Park on the Lower East Side a bathroom has been under construction for four years. You know it took 10 years to rebuild the promenade in East River Park. Do you think voters will mind not seeing the river for another 10 years? 

The city says the park will stay completely open until fall 2020. In the summer work will be done in the park, however. What work? Where? How noisy and dirty will it be? 

Community Advisory Board
What authority will the newly announced community advisory board have about any of the issues raised above? What authority will you as the local elected officials have? 

Your constituents have been working hard to convince you to vote “no” on the ESCR. At a Nov. 4 rally on the steps of City Hall, representatives of grassroots community groups delivered more than 8,000 petition signatures to the mayor. Two thousand of those signatures came from NYCHA residents, who eagerly signed. The team who gathered those names did so to show that NYCHA residents do not support the plan, despite what NYCHA Tenant Association leaders say. 

We announced a letter signed by 50 community and conservation groups from around the city. We’ve been testifying and demonstrating our hearts out for a year. You say you listen and respond to the community, but you have not heeded our thousands of voices.

We insist on a plan that will provide flood control with minimal destruction of existing parkland and biodiversity. 

We want interim flood protection. 

We don’t want to contribute to climate change in order to cope with climate change. 

We want our low- and middle-income neighborhood to be treated with the respect that wealthy neighborhoods receive. You know this kind of destructive, ugly plan would not be acceptable in a rich neighborhood. Witness how fast the city dropped the plans to put a six-lane highway where the Brooklyn Promenade is. 

We do not want East River Park destroyed. You can do better. Our neighborhood deserves better. Vote no! 

Pat Arnow for East River Park ACTION. On Twitter @ERPAction.

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Local City Council Members Must Head Back to Drawing Board on East River Park Plan Tue, 12 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Must Act Now to Protect the Lower East Side escr rendering

(rendering: City of New York)

It has been seven years since Superstorm Sandy made landfall on our city, causing billions of dollars in damage and ravaging some of our city’s most critical infrastructure, including our parks. It took years for the famous boardwalks in Coney Island and the Rockaways to re-open. Trees across our coastlines died and continue to be at risk from exposure to salt water. And many of our coastal parks are no less protected from the next big storm today than they were in 2012.

As a steward and advocate for our city’s parks, I know that we can’t pass up an opportunity to protect our coast and our parks in Lower Manhattan with the East Side Coastal Resiliency project (ESCR). This project, built the right way, can protect East River Park and the neighborhoods surrounding it for generations. 

When the city initially proposed a revised ESCR design, my organization, New Yorkers for Parks, voiced our frustration. East River Park is one of the few large, open green spaces with baseball and soccer fields in Lower Manhattan, and so many low- and middle-income New Yorkers rely on it as a home away from home. We made it clear that we would only support a plan that used phased construction, preventing the long-term displacement of park-users from the area.

Today, thanks to the advocacy of City Council Members Carlina Rivera, Keith Powers, and Margaret Chin, as well as Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, the city has committed to a construction plan that is phased, ensuring nearly 50 percent of the park remains open at all times. In addition, the city has provided a plan to ensure local youth sports teams can continue to play in the park and at surrounding sports fields and parks, many of which are receiving long-overdue repairs and upgrades.

And a new tree planting campaign has already been launched in the neighborhood, with over 1,000 trees expected to be planted in addition to the hundreds of new trees replacing the dead or aging trees in East River Park. 

But in order to make this plan truly work for the most impacted communities, we must continue to call on city agencies for greater involvement and community coordination. Part of that effort must include new major maintenance investments in this park and others so that our parks do not fall into disrepair. It is not enough to simply rebuild a park: it is our duty to maintain it, especially when it is our first line of defense for climate change. 

It’s expected that ESCR will provide coastal protections within three years. But if the City Council fails to approve this land action now, the project would likely never return, and we will lose the $335 million in federal funds that must be spent by 2022. This funding is a one-time opportunity. Losing it would be yet another tragedy.

Lower Manhattan residents deserve a park that will not only protect their homes but will protect their future. The city has never embarked upon a resiliency plan of this scale - and while the project may not be perfect, we have to start somewhere. 

During Superstorm Sandy, water infiltrated all five boroughs; storm surges don’t discriminate. Other stretches of our waterfront will require similar investments in the not-too-distant future. 

The time to plan is now. The time to act is now. Let’s make this happen.

Lynn Kelly is Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks. On Twitter @lynnbod@NY4P.

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City Council Must Act Now to Protect the Lower East Side Sun, 10 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Invest in City Parks to Improve Our Public Spaces and Save the Environment d1yd7nbx0aafoht

(photo: @RiversideParkNY)

Parks are an essential part of any city’s infrastructure. Getting into nature at an urban park lowers stress, eases depression, and fosters happiness. Parks help build community - people get out and meet each other, kids play together, mothers talk, residents meet neighbors.

Parks are particularly invaluable in New York City, the nation’s most densely populated city. And we are fortunate to have so many parks to enjoy! More than 81% of New Yorkers are within walking distance of public green space. New Yorkers are visiting city parks in unprecedented numbers. The city’s parks get more than 100 million visitors a year.

More than just places to commune and recreate, these greenspaces are also one of the city’s most valuable environmental assets. They provide clean air, help mitigate climate change, connect residents with nature, and provide habitat for wildlife.

Parks are a major source of the city’s urban tree canopy. That canopy removes 1,300 tons of pollutants from the atmosphere and stores 1.2 million tons of carbon per year. Trees are vital for mitigating the urban heat island effect and can lower air temperatures by up to nine degrees, cut air conditioning use by 30%, and reduce heating energy use by a further 20-50% -- all of which help decrease climate-changing emissions.

The city’s parks and trees also contribute to our resiliency, capturing almost 2 billion gallons of stormwater runoff each year.

The New York City Parks Department manages 30,000 acres of land, about 14% of the city. Sadly, Parks receives less than 1% of the total city budget, leaving our greenspaces at risk.

This is shameful. While New York spends $178 per capita on its parks. Minneapolis spends $233, and Washington D.C. spends $270.

The average city park has not seen a major renovation for more than 20 years. According to a Center for an Urban Future report, there are cracks in virtually every retaining wall in city parks, deteriorating bridges, toilets that flush directly into waterways, drainage systems that can’t handle the runoff from even a gentle rainfall, and myriad other problems. Managers can’t do any kind of systematic planning and major infrastructure projects are often put on hold for years.

Inadequate funding for proper maintenance has also led to a rise of invasive species in parks. Just over a year ago, invasive beetles were found in Prospect Park that cut off the supply of water and essential nutrients to trees.

The great irony of all of this is that New York’s parks are iconic. Central Park and Prospect Park are routinely found on top parks lists.

That’s why NYLCV has joined the Play Fair coalition with New Yorkers for Parks, DC 37, and more than 100 other groups. Play Fair is a multi-year advocacy campaign for parks and this year, we are calling for increasing the Parks Department budget by $100 million for better maintenance.

This investment could ensure that the city’s natural forests will begin to receive the proactive care they need to remain healthy and resilient in our changing climate. Maintenance workers would have the resources they need to protect our trees from invasive species and maintain the trees we need to absorb carbon and air pollution.

It would go a long way towards fulfilling the goals of the 25-year Forest Management Framework for the restoration and conservation of the city’s hard-working natural forests, for which NYLCV has been advocating.

Investing in maintaining our parks will make New York City more sustainable, improve resiliency, and conserve nature. It’s time we Play Fair for our parks.

Julie Tighe is President of the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV), the only non-partisan, statewide environmental organization in New York that takes a pragmatic approach to fighting for clean water, healthy air, renewable energy, and open space. On Twitter @julietighe17 & @nylcv.

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Invest in City Parks to Improve Our Public Spaces and Save the Environment Sun, 07 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Revitalizing New York’s Aging Parks parks department

(photo: Parks Department)

New Yorkers are all too familiar with the consequences of aging urban infrastructure. Years of underinvestment in New York City’s century-old subway system has led to a full-blown transit crisis, with rampant delays, consistently overcrowded trains, and frequent equipment breakdowns.

But the subways are just the most glaring problem in an aging city. Another vital piece of public infrastructure is also several decades old, years behind on basic maintenance, and nearing a breaking point: New York City’s parks system.

With more than 100 million parks visitors each year and the city’s population at a record high, New York’s 1,700 public parks have never been busier. These open spaces provide a communal backyard to millions, with major benefits for health and happiness in every corner of the city. But the combination of advanced age, record usage, and decades of underinvestment in maintenance and infrastructure means that serious cracks are showing.

The average city park is 73 years old, and parks in every borough are struggling with aging assets that are at or near the end of their useful lives—including drainage systems, retaining walls, and bridges. About 40 percent of pools and almost half of the 53 recreation centers in city parks were built before 1950. The waterfront facilities overseen by the Parks Department—148 miles of coastline, including beaches, marinas, piers, and docks—are on average 76 years old.

Yet one in five parks has not had a major infrastructure upgrade in 25 years, according to a new report from the Center for an Urban Future. At least 46 parks, triangles, and plazas have not received significant capital investment in nearly a century.

In many cases, the results are plain to see. Serious flooding, damaged pathways, missing stairs, out-of-order bathrooms, and neglected horticulture are common problems in parks across all five boroughs. Other times, the infrastructure issues are hidden from view. For example, numerous drainage systems in city parks still rely on clay pipes from the mid-20th century. Most of the city’s thousands of park retaining walls are cracking and in need of repair or replacement. And one in five park bridges was found to be seriously deteriorated during its most recent inspection.

As maintenance and infrastructure needs soar, the city has struggled to keep pace. The Parks Department’s state-of-good-repair needs jumped 45 percent over the past decade, from $405.9 million in 2007 to $589.1 million last year. Meanwhile, recommended maintenance needs more than doubled, from $14 million to $34 million. But fewer than 15 percent of these needs were funded in the city’s most recent budget—among the lowest levels of any agency.

Although age is the major culprit contributing to mounting infrastructure needs, decades of underinvestment in basic maintenance has taken a toll. The Parks Department has too few full-time staff—including plumbers, masons, and gardeners—to keep parks assets in good shape and mitigate problems before they grow. New York’s system has about 150 gardeners citywide for roughly 20,000 acres of parkland—a ratio of 1 gardener to every 133 acres. By comparison, San Francisco employs over 200 gardeners for 4,113 acres of parkland—a ratio of 1 to 20.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council deserve credit for taking important steps to address parks infrastructure needs. In recent years, the Community Parks Initiative and Anchor Parks Initiative have dedicated more than $300 million to improve chronically underfunded parks, with significant benefits in every borough. But there’s still much more work to do to shore up the city’s aging parks system and lay the foundation for the next century of public open space.

It starts with committing to strategic increases in the Parks Department’s expense budget, with the goal of permanently funding much-needed skilled maintenance staff such as gardeners and foresters, masons, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and other skilled workers, while closing the maintenance gap. In addition, the mayor and the City Council should establish a dedicated pool of capital funds for the parks system’s unsexy infrastructure—such as drainage systems and retaining walls—which are often passed over in discretionary funding.

To pay for all this, New York City should explore new revenue streams dedicated to parks maintenance and unglamorous capital projects. For example, a small surcharge on tickets to sporting events and greens fees at city golf courses could fund routine maintenance at parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers. Likewise, a surcharge on dockage fees at city-owned marinas could be used to maintain waterfront facilities. There are also numerous parks where the city could add a reasonable number of concessions that enhance the experience of parkgoers while providing vital new sources of revenue.

Given the scale of the parks system’s needs, the city’s capital dollars need to stretch as far as possible. But today, that’s hardly the case. A single bathroom can cost upward of $3 million and ten-year renovations are not uncommon. The mayor should make reforming the broken capital construction process a top priority, and the Parks Department should work to significantly speed up each phase of the process under its control.

New York’s public parks have benefited countless New Yorkers for well over a century. By investing wisely in their revitalization, these essential open spaces can continue to thrive into the next century and beyond.

Eli Dvorkin is managing editor of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity. On Twitter @nycfuture & @wetwax.

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Revitalizing New York’s Aging Parks Mon, 25 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000