City and state officials are discussing how to spend a substantial amount of new funding for Bronx parks, but the public doesn't have a seat at the table. The money - $243 million promised as mitigation for building a controversial water filtration plant underneath a section of Van Cortlandt Park - is nearly triple the capital funding the city allocated for parks in the Bronx over the last five years.
Legislation that takes over parkland to use for some other purpose requires state and city officials to sign a Memorandum of Understanding identifying, among other things, a list of eligible projects. The state legislature approved the water filtration plant last year. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the memo and its list of projects in September.
Last year, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said that the department had a long list of Bronx park projects it was circulating, and that it would be going to community boards and other community groups to solicit their input on projects. But park organizations and advocates say there have been no public forums to discuss what projects should be funded, and that the final decisions are being made by politicians behind closed doors.
Ari Hoffnung, chair of the parks and recreation committee of Community Board 8, which includes Van Cortlandt Park, said, "To the best of my knowledge, the community board hasn't been contacted formally for its input on the mitigation funds," although they had some "very tentative" conversations about how the money could be spent in Van Cortlandt Park. "I would certainly welcome a request from the parks department or other appropriate city agency that would involve input from the community," he said. Hoffnung envisioned a forum where "park advocates, park users, and the community at large can come together and really voice their hopes and aspirations for the parks in the community." He said, "To spend $200 million without consulting the community is outrageous."
In early 2003, before the legislation passed, the parks department met with board members and Executive Director Paul Sawyer of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, which opposes putting the filtration plant in the park. Officials presented the projects the department wanted to do in the Bronx, according to Sawyer. "We were kind of taken aback," he said. The group told the parks department that it was not prepared to talk about projects that early in the process. Friends of Van Cortlandt Park is continuing to fight the filtration plant in the park, and is planning a lawsuit.
According to Sawyer, some people present at the meeting pointed out that the projects were presented on a map broken down by Assembly district - seemingly a fairly blatant indication of what had been promised to Bronx Assembly members in exchange for their votes to approve the taking of parkland. The legislation passed in an extremely close vote after midnight at the end of the 2003 legislative session, and broke the Assembly's tradition of never approving the taking of parkland over the objection of the member who represents the area.
Looked at less cynically, many Bronx politicians felt that the opportunity to fund much-needed park improvements in an era of declining public funds outweighed the environmental impacts and parkland loss for one densely populated neighborhood.
Four environmental and parks organizations, both supporters and opponents of the filtration plant, sent a letter on August 4 to the elected officials who must sign the Memorandum of Understanding, asking for more citizen involvement in the selection of park projects. The groups - New Yorkers for Parks, New York League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Environmental Defense - also called for "clear assurances" that the funding be in addition to the currently approved capital budget for Bronx parks and that the projects be chosen within a strategic, long-term capital investment plan. The letter cited a recent Ernst and Young study, How Smart Parks Investment Pays Its Way, which found that capital investment in parks had higher economic returns when it was part of a larger plan for the community and involved local residents and organizations.
Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said that the groups had not gotten a response to their letter. "None of the elected officials seems to care what the public is thinking, but everybody looks to the public to maintain the parks," he said.
Will the money go to Yankee Stadium?
During the hearings last year preceding the legislature's vote, park advocates raised the possibility that the mitigation money could be used to pay for a new Yankee Stadium. Officials from the Department of Environmental Conservation and the parks department debunked that notion. At the time, Assembly member Scott Stringer, who voted in favor of the taking of the parkland, said, "That's absurd that it would be spent on Yankee Stadium."
Recently, however, The New York Times reported that the city and the Yankees are in discussions to build a new stadium at the site of Macombs Dam Park, adjacent to the current stadium. The Yankees intend to pay for the new stadium, now that taxpayers are losing patience with footing the bill for sports arenas. But the city would be expected to pick up the tab for a string of parks and ballfields leading down to the Harlem River to replace Macombs Dam Park. The plan fits in nicely with a plan for redeveloping the area being promoted by Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion.
The Daily News reported that, according to two Bronx officials close to the negotiations, the final agreement on how the $243 million would be spent has been held up by a last-minute effort by Governor George Pataki to earmark some of that money for the new Yankee Stadium plan. However, Jennifer Meicht, spokesperson for Governor Pataki, said, "That is absolutely not true."
Meicht said, "Negotiations are ongoing to determine how the money will be disbursed," but did not have any information on plans for public participation. She added, "We strongly support that the money should be used for parks-related projects only."
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.