Gotham Gazette

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Saving Oakland Lake

Jerry Iannece is a good example of the kind of person who can get things moving in New York City.

"I know how it works," says Iannece, a former district attorney who now serves as chairman of Queens Community Board 11. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Or, in this case, thanks to squeaky Iannece, Oakland Lake didn’t get the grease.

Iannece lives in Bayside Hills, a neighborhood near Oakland Lake, a spring-fed body of water that dates back to the last Ice Age; the parks department says it is the only one in Queens. Once teeming with wild fish and birds, it now serves mainly as an aesthetic backdrop for local joggers and a cement-lined way station for Canadian geese. Yosemite it's not, but in a corner of New York City dominated by the Cross Island Expressway and Northern Boulevard, it's a sentimental reminder of the days when canoes, not SUVs, were the primary mode of transportation in this corner of the city.

The problem facing the neighborhood was how to avoid the flooding to which the area was prone without emptying the runoff into Oakland Lake, which would then be contaminated with the toxic mixture of flood water, motor oil, fertilizer and other pollutants.

Engineers said the city would have to build a mile-long diversionary sewer pipeline, which would empty into the Little Neck Bay instead. Federal clean water regulations, meanwhile, demanded a new stormwater treatment facility. The price tag for the whole project would be as much as $160 million.

"Some people said that with that kind of money we should have just bought the dozen or so houses," says Iannece. "But if we did that, we'd be destroying a community. My response was, the city allowed this problem to happen. The city can fix it."

Elected president of the Bayside Hills Civic Association in 1996, Iannece at first used his newfound authority to press the Department of Environmental Protection to put its diversionary plan in motion. He also used it to lobby local residents on Springfield Boulevard and 46th Avenue, the two streets that would have to be torn up to make room for the new sewer pipeline. Most importantly, says Iannece, he courted prominent local politicians such as former Queens Borough President Claire Schulman and State Senator Frank Padavan, people with the power to move bureaucratic mountains with a single phone call.

"Jerry was extremely helpful," says Padavan. "In addition to reaching out to the community at large and getting me involved, he helped us overcome hurdles that would have kept the project from going through."

Among the chief hurdles was the Alley Pond Environmental Center, a bird and plant sanctuary located near the original sewer's untreated outfall. If the city had gone with its original plan, it would have dumped water into an area currently home to meadows and salt marshes. "Ecologically, it would have been a disaster," says Dr. Aline Euler, education director for the Alley Pond Environmental Center.

To keep waterborne pollutants from overwhelming the sensitive Alley Pond and Alley Creek ecosystems, city engineers agreed to move the sewer pipeline to the west, running it under Northern Boulevard.

As part of the compromise plan, the Department of Environmental Protection has also agreed to build storage tanks to capture water in low flow periods so that pumps can redirect that water to the Tallmans Island wastewater treatment plant for processing.

Meanwhile, both Euler and Iannece are looking to the project's final hurdle: the environmental remediation of Oakland Ravine, a portion of the Oakland Lake park which, thanks to the construction of 56th Avenue to the south, has been largely cut off from its historical watershed. A year ago, the Department of Environmental Protection appeared to waver on plans for a $10 million filtration system to handle the fast moving water coming down off the Queensborough College campus. Padavan brokered a meeting between Iannece and department officials. Both sides agreed to a more modest plan proposed by the parks department. The new plan uses parkland vegetation and "step pools" to filter out whatever contaminants work their way into the groundwater before that water hits the lake.

Euler, for one, is skeptical. "They really need to do a major job from an ecological standpoint, a sensitive design that takes into consideration trying to restore that lake to the way it was,” she says. “That lake was 15,000 years old and was working fine when the native Americans lived there. It was fine with the colonists. I hope that they do spend some money to improve it and restore it to the way it was."

Noting a century's worth of urban development, however, Iannece doesn't see that sort of remedy in the cards. He does, however, see the potential for something similar to the Staten Island Bluebelt, where park rangers have been able to bring back a semblance of native wetland amid an otherwise urban environment. Recent rumors that the Oakland Ravine portion of the project might fall out of the budget again have steeled his resolve to see it restored to a semblance of its native form.

"I think I might have to start kicking some butt again," he says.

While he doesn't consider himself an environmentalist, Iannece says he does think environmentalists and civic groups can work together to find more sustainable solutions to the man-made problems currently dogging the city. Advising other neighborhood groups on how to fix their own local problems, he keeps the advice simple: Start small, stay focused, and set yourself at least a five to ten year timetable for change.

"It's kind of like a war of attrition," he says. "I've been in rooms where 300 people would get up and yell at me. Still, if the community's focused, if the rhetoric is good, if the message is good, if the plan is good, you'll get the job done."

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