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National Parkland Not on Radar

Photos (c) U.S. National Park Service
Photos from the Jamaica Bay unit of Gateway National Recreation Area

When my 19-year-old daughter and her friends are looking for something to do, they often head for the water. They walk in the park along the Hudson River, go to concerts on a pier, watch movies in Brooklyn Bridge Park or take a ferry to the beach.

Gotham Gazette on the Waterfront

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None of this would have been possible twenty or even ten years ago. Over the past two decades, parks have been built and restored around the Manhattan shoreline, along the Bronx River, on the downtown Brooklyn waterfront and on Governors Island, bringing people to the water and redefining the experience of visiting and living in New York City. These changes were illustrated this summer on Governors Island, where expanded ferry service and a new promenade, picnic area, and Water Taxi Beach drew more than 100,000 visitors through July -- nearly twice as much as the entire summer of 2007.

While city and state parks have been the focus of this reinvention of the waterfront, much more can be done to the vast acreage of parks under national jurisdiction. Known together as the National Parks of New York Harbor, these parks offer a tremendous opportunity to integrate the harbor into the life of the city and provide an urban park experience on the level of a Yellowstone or Yosemite.

"There are sites of great renown and beauty, such as the Statue of Liberty, and there are sites that have not come close to realizing their potential and are certainly not the iconic parks that the public deserves," said Alexander Brash, northeast regional director of the National Parks and Conservation Association, a national parks advocacy group.

The Harbor Parks

Few New Yorkers are aware that the National Park Service is the largest single landholder in the harbor, having jurisdiction over 26,000 acres of parkland, wetlands and water, nearly the size of the entire city park system. Most of this acreage is within the three Gateway National Recreation Area units, spanning the Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and northern New Jersey shores.

A 2006 poll found that nearly half of New York area residents don't know about and have never visited Gateway. Even so, in 2006, Gateway was the fifth most visited park in the national park system.

New York Harbor is a great estuarine ecosystem and a key stopover on the avian Atlantic Flyway. It has also played a starring role in the history of the country, as the site of the first U.S. government, a great commercial port, a nexus of military defense and the portal for waves of immigration.

The harbor's 10 national parks and monuments, which include 23 unique sites, were grouped together in 2002 as the National Parks of New York Harbor. "Sitting on a boat, or from Governors Island, you can see the sites together and understand America in a different way," said Robert Pirani, the director of environmental programs at the Regional Plan Association.

Among the harbor park sites are Ellis Island, Federal Hall, Castle Williams and Fort Jay on Governors Island, as well as Grant's Tomb and the city's newest national memorial, the African Burial Ground in Manhattan.

The vast acreage of Gateway National Recreation Area includes wetlands, waters, forests and meadows that provide important habitat for birds, fish and shellfish, as well sandy beaches, sports fields, forts, lighthouses and airplane hangars. The 9,000-acre Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge is the largest bird sanctuary in the eastern United States.

Gateway’s Missed Potential

When Congress established Gateway in 1972 as one of the National Park System's first urban national recreation areas (the other being Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco), it authorized $92 million to restore the collection of shoreline properties that had many different prior uses and were in various states of disrepair. Gateway, though, never got the initial funding -- equivalent to $1.2 billion in today's dollars.

The park's 1979 general management plan envisioned an "opportunity to demonstrate that abused resources can be renewed," and a park offering "millions of Americans a chance to have national park adventures and experiences virtually at their own doorsteps." But the long underfunded national park system was never given the money to restore Gateway's landscapes, renovate many of its structures, build extensive new recreational facilities and provide adequate visitor services.

In addition, public transportation to and within the far-flung sites was never put in place, preventing Gateway from becoming the urban recreational, natural and historical destination it was meant to be. "The whole point of Gateway was to be of service to people living in cities who don't have cars," said Brash.

A 2007 report card by the National Parks and Conservation Association found Gateway's natural and cultural resources in poor condition. Degraded habitat, derelict buildings and impermeable asphalt remain throughout the park. Wetlands and other habitats once teeming with wildlife are damaged by pollution from former landfills, runoff from commercial areas, treated wastewater from city sewage plants and sewage overflows during storms. The wetlands in Jamaica Bay are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the sea level's rise due to global warming will affect the entire park's shoreline.

Photos (c) U.S. National Park Service
Historic aircraft "fly-in" to Floyd Bennett Field

Floyd Bennett Field, the city's first municipal airport and former a U.S. naval air station, comprises 20 percent of Gateway's land mass, but it has never been renovated to fulfill its potential as the "gateway to Gateway." Runways still cover the landscape. The former control tower and terminal was converted to a visitor center, but much of the interior is crumbling and off-limits to the public. Along with recreation such as bird watching in the grasslands, flying model airplanes and community gardening, the park serves for other city uses, such as training city police and sanitation drivers.

A Harbor Vision

Recent efforts have begun to make Gateway the great urban national park many hoped it would become. Creating a vision and gaining the necessary funding, advocates say, will require the collaboration of agencies at the city, state and federal levels, as well as with the many organizations concerned with the park and harbor.

A finalist from the design competition, Envisioning Gateway

In 2007, the National Parks and Conservation Association partnered with the Van Alen Institute and Columbia University to hold a design competition, titled Envisioning Gateway. "The idea was not that the winner of the contest would be the one producing the final design for the park, but rather to raise the bar on what the park could and should be," said Brash.

The National Parks Service is working on a new general management plan for Gateway. It has hosted open houses throughout the summer, and there will be five more open houses in September.

Some park advocates are concerned, however, that the process of creating a new plan would recreate the wheel and risk further delay. Advocates the original 1979 management plan to be made available to the public online along with all of the other pertinent information, such as maps, scientific data and documents relating to the development of the new plan.

The original plan should be used as a foundation of the new plan, "so we're not doing zero-based planning," said Dave Lutz, executive director of Friends of Gateway and a participant for several decades in efforts to protect, improve and create access to the recreation area. "Let's look at what's there and decide what we like, what we don't like; what we can do, what we can't do."

Other organizations have focused on the harbor parks as a whole and on improving access and making the harbor a new destination for visitors and residents. The New York Harbor Parks Conservancy was established in 2002 as a nonprofit partner for the city's national parks. Among its goals are to develop waterborne transportation to make the harbor and its islands more accessible and to raise awareness about the historical and cultural significance of the public spaces around the harbor. The conservancy has created several guided harbor tours and is working to increase public access through ferries and buses to the far-flung sites.

New York's congressional delegation has secured some funding for several transit-related projects, including new ferry docks and research for bus-tram service linking Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Jacob Riis Park to the subway.

Focusing on the inner harbor, the city's Economic Development Corporation has designated a new harbor district. Next month, as part of NYC 400 week, it is presenting a celebratory Harbor Day, with free bikes and boat service connecting six major waterfront sites.

Restoring and developing Gateway as a model urban national park and a vibrant connection to the waterfront presents a tremendous challenge. It will require a vision that balances ecological conservation, historic preservation and recreation, greatly improved public access, and the cooperation of scores of stakeholders with often conflicting agendas.

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

Good Parks Are Good for the Economy

Photo (c) re:kuwait

By the time the first section of the High Line opened in June to wide acclaim, dozens of new buildings had already sprouted up around it, including a glass-curtained hotel that floats above the park and a series of residential towers designed by world-renowned architects. City officials have predicted that development sparked by reinventing the abandoned elevated rail line as a park will bring $4 billion in private investment and $900 million in revenues to the city over the next 30 years, the Times reported.

The surge in development spurred by the High Line is the latest exhibit in the growing stack of evidence that having beautiful, well-maintained parks is much more than a nice amenity cities can ignore when times are hard. Creating and maintaining parks stimulates the economy and also provides quantifiable recreational and environmental benefits along with other services and savings to taxpayers.

In the most recent analyses of the economic benefits of parks, a study found that Central Park contributed $1 billion to the city's economy in 2007. A broader assessment by the Center for City Park Excellence of The Trust for Public Land quantified the real economic benefits that parks provide, using examples from cities around the country.

In supporting the seemingly quixotic vision of West Side residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond, founders of Friends of the High Line, to save the old railway and make it a linear park -- and in incorporating it into the city's planning process for the far West Side -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg indicated he understood the impact public space can have on a city's economic growth. The mayor further recognized the link between parks and prosperity in his sustainability plan, PlaNYC 2030, which aims (though, since the recession, at a slower pace) to create new parks and plazas citywide.

Until the fiscal problems hit last year, the Bloomberg administration had modestly boosted the budget for operating and maintaining the parks department, to about $270 million a year. But next year's budget cuts about $13 million from parks maintenance, eliminating 250 summer workers as well as $3 million for tree pruning. This follows the previous year's reductions, for a total cut of $24 million since 2007.

The parks budget has not had consecutive cuts of this magnitude in more than 15 years. Advocates worry that the reductions could start the city back on the path to the dismal conditions of the 1970s and '80s, reversing a parks revival that contributed to the city's economic resurgence.

"I think we're going to see the consequences through the park system," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. "We're already strained to take care of our parks, and you're going to see the care go down."

How Parks Boost the Economy

Such cuts could turn out to actually cost the city money. Fine parks contribute to the economy by increasing property values and, as a result, real estate tax receipts. A 2008 analysis found that the completion of the Greenwich Village section of the Hudson River Park raised real estate prices in the adjacent two blocks by 20 percent.

In 2003, a study by Ernst & Young and New Yorkers for Parks looked at the results of investment in six city parks, with supplemental data from 30 additional parks. It found that real estate values were higher on blocks closest to well-managed and maintained parks, such as Prospect Park.

Parks also attract tourists and residents who come to events and activities or who just want to enjoy the surroundings, generating economic activity inside and near the park. Central Park attracts more than 25 million visitors a year, about one fifth of whom come from outside the city, according to "The Central Park Effect," which was prepared by the economic analysis firm Appleseed for the Central Park Conservancy. The study determined that in 2007, spending by visitors and enterprises in the city's most famous park directly and indirectly accounted for $395 million in economic activity. This activity, as well as increases in property values near the park, generated $656 million in revenues for the city in 2007.

"Measuring the Economic Value of a City Park System," released in April by the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land, analyzed seven ways that city parks provide economic benefits: property values, tourism, direct use, health, community cohesion, clean water and clean air. Starting with conservative assumptions of park use and other variables, researchers calculated dollar values for each of these benefits in a different city.

In San Diego, for example, the study determined that, with slightly less than 5 percent of tourists coming to the city especially to visit the parks, park-derived tourist spending in 2007 totaled $114 million. That generated $8.6 million in direct sales and other tax revenue as well as a collective increase of $40 million in residents' wealth.

By offering free or inexpensive recreation, parks also save residents money. In Boston, for example, the study determined that the economic value of direct park use was $354 million.

The health benefits of exercise in parks offer further savings. The study calculated $19.9 million in medical savings realized by residents in Sacramento because of active recreation in parks.

According to the report, "numerous studies have shown that the more webs of human relationships a neighborhood has, the stronger, safer and more successful it is." Well-used parks offer many ways for neighbors to get to know each other, and efforts to create, save, or care for parks create further community cohesiveness. This "social capital" can reduce a city's costs for policing, fire protection and criminal justice. Because the economic value of social capital can't be measured directly, the report cited as a proxy the amount of time and money residents contributed to "friends" groups and other park-oriented organizations and agencies.

Parks also provide quantifiable environmental benefits: Trees and vegetation absorb runoff and reduce costs for treating stormwater; they also absorb air pollutants. Using Philadelphia as an example, the study found that the city's park system saved $5.9 million in 2007 in stormwater management costs. In 2005, the 4,839 acres of tree cover in 7,999 acres of Washington, D.C. parkland produced savings of $1.13 million in air pollutant removal.

Investment Required

To capture the economic benefits of parks, however, a city must invest in their upkeep. Parks help the economy when they are well maintained and well used. They can have a negative effect when they are neglected, attracting vandalism, drug-dealing and other crime. During the New York City fiscal crisis of the 1970s and '80s, dirty, worn and dangerous parks became a potent symbol of the city's decline.

The parks system, compared to other city services, takes a relatively small amount of money to maintain. Although the parks department operating budget has increased since the lows of the early 1990s, the number of park properties has increased by 20 percent, and the department still runs on a budget that park advocates say is not adequate to keep the entire system in good repair.

Especially at risk are parks in the outer boroughs and in lower-income neighborhoods, which have not benefitted as much from the private funding that burnishes the city's flagship parks. Users of some parks and sports fields still contend with trash, locked bathrooms and lack of maintenance. Daily News columnist Denis Hamill described these types of conditions recently inrecounting his experiences as a baseball dad in Queens.

Many of the neighborhoods surrounding these parks have been affected disproportionately by the mortgage crisis and declining real estate prices. Given the economic benefits of well-used and maintained parks -- and the increased need for free recreation and relaxation during a time of financial stress for many residents -- can the city afford to pare down the parks budget further?

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

Yankee Stadium Is Opening but Not the Parks

The current waterfront in the Yankee redevelopment zone, with an inset of a rendering of proposed waterfront park.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in early April, people of all ages crowded into the temporary South Bronx park at 161st Street and Jerome Avenue. The three-acre synthetic turf field and track is pinch-hitting for the parkland slated to replace 22 acres of Macombs Dam Park now vanished under the new Yankee Stadium. A baseball team practiced on the diamond at one corner of the field; in another corner, a half-dozen boys played soccer. Squeezed in the middle, members of the Bronx Colts football teams ran their drills.

Their coach, Leroy Freeman, Jr., stood and watched. He said that finding practice space, especially this time of year when so many sports compete for space, has been difficult during the three years since Macombs Dam Park closed. Like many school and neighborhood teams, the four football teams fielded by his Bronx Colts Youth Foundation have been traveling around the borough to play their games. Freeman is impatient for the replacement parks to open.

"We've got kids out here that need these fields – they need these fields." he said. Being involved in the sports program, he said, "keeps them away from the streets, builds up their character. It gives them hope."

Map from Dept. of Parks and Recreation

When the deal was made to build a new Yankees ballpark on the worn but beloved swath of parkland, the city said that most of the new parks to replace it would be ready when the new stadium opened. The Yankees play their home opener in the new stadium on April 16, but the first section of new parkland won't be finished until months after baseball season ends. However impressive the new facilities might be, residents are irritated at the delays and sad at the sight of the massive new structure in the middle of the former stretch of green. Many say the patchwork of new parks can never truly replace what they viewed as their Central Park.

The Park Swap

For the better part of two decades, the Yankees tried to get the city to replace their outmoded stadium, threatening to move the team out of the city.

In 2005 the team and the Bloomberg administration reached an agreement in which the Yankees would pay for the construction of a new stadium, assisted by more than $800 million in tax-exempt financing, property and sales tax exemptions and public subsidies for parking garages, new parkland and other infrastructure. The Yankees would get to build their new ballpark and several garages on parkland owned by the city -- to the north and west of the old stadium in Macombs Dam Park and part of Mullaly Park. By building there, the Yankees would displace four baseball fields, two basketball and 32 handball courts, 16 tennis courts, and a soccer/football field ringed by the quarter-mile Joseph Yancey Track, where the first U.S. interracial track team developed many Olympic athletes.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion and state legislators fast-tracked the legislative approval required to take over, or "alienate," the parkland before residents had a chance to have a say in the process.

By law, when parkland is alienated, it must be replaced by parks of equivalent value, usefulness and accessibility.

To comply with this, the city came up with a plan to build numerous new recreational spaces, ranging in size from less than half an acre to almost 10 acres. The pieces add up to about 32 acres, some of which is existing parkland or mapped parkland that had been used for other purposes. The sites include the rooftop of a parking garage being built on top of two of the former Macombs Dam Park ballfields, an abandoned industrial site along Harlem River and the footprint of the old Yankee stadium.

The Grand New Parks

Parks officials recently led reporters on a tour of the new parks under construction. They said the new recreational facilities will be much better than those they will replace and incorporate requests made by residents at a series of public meetings.

The centerpiece of the garage-top park will be a synthetic turf multi-purpose field for soccer and football, surrounded by a state-of-the art 400-meter running track, with bleachers overlooking it all. There will also be four basketball and eight handball courts, a comfort station and an office.

Part of the field and a temporary track is slated to open sometime in April, fenced off from the surrounding construction. The entire rooftop, being built in two sections, was originally set to open along with the new stadium. It now is supposed to come on line in spring 2010.

Parks spokesperson Jama Adams said that the department is no longer using synthetic turf filled with recycled black crumb rubber. Instead it will use a light-green-colored virgin rubber infill. This fill is cooler, although the exact amount hasn’t been determined, she said. Standard synthetic turf can reach temperatures of up to 130 degrees.

Beds at the edge of the roof will be planted with shrubs and trees. "When you're up here, you won't even know you're on a parking garage," said Thomas Balsley, the principal of Thomas Balsley Associates, the landscape architecture and urban design firm that is designing the new parks.

The rooftop park is at street level on the west but above grade next to the old Yankee Stadium. The stadium will be razed and replaced with three regulation ballfields -- for baseball, softball and Little League -- and renamed Heritage Park.

Balsley explained that the design seamlessly connects the garage-top park with Heritage Park. Heritage Park will also have a play area, grassy mounds where people will be able to sit and watch the games and perimeter plantings. "It is not normal to have such a rich landscape palette associated with sports fields," said Balsley. "I like to imagine it is a park and we have carved some ballfields out of it."

Between the two spaces will be a tree-lined walkway, called Ruppert Plaza, leading to the stadium from a pedestrian bridge to the new Metro North station.

Construction has also begun on the waterfront park along the Harlem River, across from the Gateway Mall scheduled to open in late 2009.

That parkland is being built on piles because of soil settlement. It will feature a pedestrian/bicycle path, a beach, passive park areas and viewing platforms and 16 tennis courts, a dozen of which can be covered with a bubble for indoor play. The concessionaire will have the option, parks officials say, to turn the four outdoor courts into a skating rink in winter.

The plan also includes renovating an historic powerhouse to house the tennis concessionaire, the Bronx park headquarters and rental space.

The Temporary Solution

To help compensate for the loss of playing fields, in 2007, a year after stadium construction began, the city opened the temporary ballfield and track at 161st Street and Jerome Avenue, a site earmarked for another parking garage. In 2008, it completed a synthetic-turf baseball field and refurbished the basketball and handball courts at P.S. 29, a mile away from the original park, and constructed a synthetic turf field for soccer and baseball at the West Bronx Recreation Center, a mile and a half away.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Parks and Recreation

"To minimize the impact of the new park construction on the sports season, the department worked closely with neighborhood athletic teams and successfully accommodated all field permit holders on other fields, including: the interim ballfield at 161st and Jerome Avenue (formerly Lot 1), Franz Sigel Park, P.S. 29 Ballfield, Pelham Bay Park, Allerton Field, and Van Cortlandt Park," parks department spokesperson Jesslyn Tiao Moser wrote in an email message.

Using Yankee Stadium funds together with mitigation money from the Van Cortlandt Park filtration plant, the parks department has also nearly completed an extensive renovation of the remaining part of Mullaly Park. It added a synthetic turf soccer field, upgraded the two softball fields, and added new playgrounds, gardens and dozens of new trees.

The department began planting the trees in 2005, and has since planted 45 percent of the 8,000 young trees to replace the larger trees cut down in Macombs Dam Park, although only a few hundred are near the original park site.

A row of tall street trees along 164th Street, opposite Mullaly Park, got a reprieve, said Frank McCue, parks department stadia project manager. Once slated to make way for a parking garage, the trees were saved when the city decided to shrink the garage by 200 spaces instead.

More Days, More Dollars

Yankee Stadium and the new Metro North station were both completed on schedule, but the replacement parkland has been subject to delays and will be not be fully complete until the fall of 2011, according to the current timeline. Meanwhile, the estimated cost to the taxpayers, one that would not have been incurred if the Yankees had rebuilt their new stadium at the site of the old one, has risen from $116 million to $195 million, according to the Independent Budget Office.

At a City Council hearing in June 2008, Liam Kavanagh, parks department first deputy commissioner, said that the delays were due to the complexity of the sites as well as the discovery of an unexpectedly large quantity of toxic oil barrels at the waterfront site.

According to the budget office report, the cost increases can be attributed to the expansion and revision of some of the projects, unanticipated environmental clean-up, delays and a steeper climb in construction costs than initially estimated.

The delays and cost overruns seem a logical consequence of trying to replace parkland in an area where no natural open space remains. The three major replacement sites require complicated engineering, demolition and/or environmental clean-ups.

The city has not explained why it did not begin dismantling the old stadium immediately after the final season ended, so that it could begin construction of the replacement ballfields sooner. The Mets demolished their old ballpark as soon as the season was over.

The city also plans to build two pocket parks, a playground and a skate park on opposite sides of 161st Street, across River Avenue from the old stadium. The sites are now paved lots that were actually mapped as parkland but have been used for stadium parking and, as a result, require environmental remediation.

Scattered Sites

No matter how well designed and up-to-date the new facilities turn out to be, neighborhood residents and park advocates maintain that it was never a fair exchange. The new parks, plazas and sports fields will be scattered throughout the neighborhood and beyond, closer to the pollution and noise of the Major Deegan Expressway. The waterfront park site – the largest segment at 9.88 acres – is a 20 to 30 minute walk from residential areas.

Residents say that all these bits and pieces can never replace the breathing space an expanse of trees and grass provides, or the way such a centrally located park binds together a community and creates a sense of place and identity. In a neighborhood that suffers from some of the highest asthma rates in the city, they are also concerned about an increase in exposure to pollutants from the highway and fumes from the parking garage.

The felling of 377 mature trees and careless construction practices has exacerbated the air pollution. Throughout the construction process, trucks idled from 6 a.m. on, residents say, and the air was frequently filled with dust from construction trucks tracking dirt through the neighborhood.

Residents are also concerned about maintenance and safety in the new parks. Jose Rodriguez, district manager of Bronx Community Board 4, said that because the pedestrian plaza from the Metro North station to the stadium will be open 24 hours a day, neighbors are worried about the potential for crime and have asked for security cameras.

Locals also say that Macombs Dam Park suffered from lack of maintenance and wonder whether the city will be able keep up the new parks properly, especially given the current dire budget situation. Moser said that the parks department is "committed to maintaining the new parks with a combination of 'fixed post' and district maintenance and operations crews."

The Yankees, long accused of being a bad neighbor to the low-income community that surrounds the stadium, promised to donate $800,000 a year to neighborhood organizations through a Community Benefits Agreement made with local politicians, but none of the funding will go to parks maintenance.

That agreement has been criticized for lack of community input and delays in distributing the money; the organization set up to divide the money recently was sued for mismanagement. "There is no relation between parks and the Community Benefits Fund now, but we may consider how that money could be used to maintain parks," said Moser in an email.

Meanwhile, three springs after they lost their Central Park, the families of Highbridge – and the players and coaches on the soccer, football, baseball and track teams for the local schools and sports leagues – still wait for their parks.

When the partial field and running track opens on the garage roof later this month, the temporary ballfield will close to allow construction of another parking garage. Baseball players will be out of luck -- their new fields will be the last completed, after Yankee Stadium is demolished and Heritage Park is built.

Sean Sullivan, the principal and baseball coach at All Hallows High School, a parochial school whose teams used to play in Macombs Dam Park, told the Daily News, "We're like gypsies, running around the city trying to find a field to play in." The Yankee Community Benefits Fund recently turned down the school's request for $40,000 to help defray the $60,000 the school spent to replace buses to take the teams to their games.

"The Yankees are going to open up and the community still doesn't have what it's been promised," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. "And we did this all for the purpose of a private, for-profit corporation not to miss a day of making money."

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

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