Gotham Gazette

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Budget Takes an Ax to Programs for Open Space

Photo (c) NYC Dept of Parks, Photo by Malcolm Pinckney
Harlem River Park Daffodils

To balance New York State's budget in the deepening recession, Gov. David Paterson is proposing a thousand painful cuts in state services from education to health care to the arts. But his proposed cuts would fall disproportionately on parks and open space, particularly on the principal state funding source for this, the Environmental Protection Fund. The dedicated fund, as well as other state money, has been instrumental in the city's reclamation of the waterfront over the last decade and in protecting some of its last natural and open spaces.

The Environmental Protection Fund was set up in 1993 to provide a consistent source of funding, in good times and bad, to protect the state's environment and public health and invest in its future sustainability. The fund's revenue comes primarily from the state real estate transfer tax, and the money is supposed to be spent only on open space, solid waste, parks, recreation and historic preservation.

The New York City projects that have relied on this funding source include the Hudson River Park, the Bronx River, the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, the Harlem River Greenway and the effort to recover Jamaica Bay's disappearing wetlands. A report recently released by Friends of New York's Environment, a broad-based coalition advocating for real increases in the fund, highlights projects throughout the state that were made possible by the fund.

'Sweeping' the Fund

Over the last decade, appropriations for the Environmental Protection Fund have fluctuated between $100 million and $150 million a year.

Like a child's piggybank to an unscrupulous parent, however, the fund often presented a tempting target for governors seeking to balance the budget. They have frequently "swept" unspent money from the fund and used it for unrelated programs. "Over the years, the Environmental Protection Fund has been raided to the tune of half a billion dollars," said Tim Sweeney, director of the Campaign for Parks, a state parks advocacy coalition. "They couch it in terms of loans but none of the money has been repaid so far."

"It's not really extra money – it's money that should go to environmental programs," said Jessica Ottney, director of state government relations at The Nature Conservancy. It often takes longer than a year for new programs and complicated transactions like land acquisitions to spend allocated money, she said. Taking unspent funds "eliminates money for projects that are already under way and then it may not be there when it is needed."

In 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the legislature agreed that there was a need to significantly increase funding and passed legislation to boost appropriations to $250 million in fiscal year 2008-2009 and nearly $300 million for the 2009-2010 fiscal year and subsequent years.

Then the financial crisis hit, and Paterson reduced spending mid-year to $205 million and swept $25 million into the general fund. For next fiscal year, the governor proposes to keep the fund at $205 million and sweep $45 million of unspent money.

In the most draconian cut for the coming year, he entirely eliminated the fund's program that supports zoos, botanical gardens and aquariums, which would force severe cutbacks in hours, public programs and free visiting days at some of the city's major tourist attractions.

State capital funds to continue building the Hudson River Park remain for the coming year, but the governor is proposing zero funding –- both capital and operating -– for Governors Island, which relies on both city and state funds, although not through the Environmental Protection Fund.

The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corp., the city-state partnership that operates the former military base and is developing it for green space, recreation, education and other uses, has been opening the island to the public every summer. Last year, more than 128,000 people took the short ferry ride to listen to folk music, picnic, tour the historic military sites and bicycle around the car-free island.

Without state funding, the island would remain shuttered this summer. Although the city has said it would provide its share of the $14.8 million in operating funds requested by the corporation, it may withhold that money if there is no state match. Uncertainty over state funding could jeopardize millions of dollars of private funding from the arts and concert groups that are now planning next summer's programs. Keeping the island closed this summer could cost the city several million dollars in lost tourism revenue, according to Robert Pirani, executive director of the Governors Island Alliance.

Eliminating capital funding would bring to a halt plans for developing the island and creating more than 100 acres of parkland, and allow further deterioration of the historic buildings. "We're nervous that if you're not moving forward, you're moving backward," said Pirani.

No Deposit, No Return

Under Paterson's budget proposal, funding for parks and open space would be cut not just in the upcoming fiscal year but permanently diminished through a change in the funding formula.

Revenue for the fund now comes from the real estate transfer tax. In past years, that tax has generated about $1 billion a year, but receipts have fallen with the decline in the real estate market. Many other states use a similar mechanism, tying a fee on real estate transactions to funding for projects that would mitigate the impact of development, provide recreation and green space for growing communities, and protect water bodies and natural areas.

Paterson wants to replace this source of environmental funding with money from unclaimed bottle deposits. That would require the passage of an updated bottle bill, the so-called "bigger better bottle bill," which would expand the 5-cent bottle deposit to sports drinks and bottled water and require beverage companies to turn over unclaimed deposits to the state.

If the updated bottle bill were to pass, the amount of unclaimed deposits is estimated at $118 million. For parks and open space, the governor proposes an additional $80 million from the real estate transfer tax and $7 million from a variety of other sources. That would keep future spending at the level proposed for next year, a third less than the amount legislators agreed in 2007 was long overdue to meet the state's needs to protect open space, farmland and water supplies, build and maintain parks and revive waterfronts.

"Two years ago, the state was facing a very different financial outlook," said Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesman for the New York State budget division. "Clearly New York is facing a fiscal decline greater than any we've seen since the Great Depression and reductions were taken across all areas of state spending."

Environmental and parks groups argue that the savings generated from reducing Environmental Protection Fund spending would only be illusory. "These programs are much less expensive than the costs associated with environmental clean-ups, public health impacts and lost revenue from recreation and tourism," said Norreida Reyes, conservation director of the Sierra Club Atlantic chapter, in a prepared statement.

In their reaction to the financial crisis, said Ottney of the Nature Conservancy, state officials appear to view open space, parks and other environmental programs as discretionary items. But, she said, "they are not options, they are necessities."

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

What's Happened to the Plant in the Park

What's Happened to the Plant in the Park
Image from Talk Bronx

Four years into the construction of a controversial underground water filtration plant in the Bronx, a steep rise in projected costs has revived questions about whether the city made the best financial decision in choosing the location over an aboveground site in Westchester.

The city's economic crisis has made these questions more pressing than ever, adding to the concern over the amount of debt the city has taken on for capital projects and the future cost of paying the interest on that debt.

The escalating cost of the facility, which will be one of the largest water filtration plants in the world, is one of a number of complaints raised by critics, who opposed ever placing it in the Bronx and say the city is mismanaging the project. As they watch over the construction of the plant as well as associated work at nearby Jerome Park Reservoir, they want to ensure that the city keeps its promises to provide jobs to local residents, minimize the environmental impacts of construction in residential neighborhoods and spend an additional $240 million on Bronx parks.

Local politicians and state officials agreed to let the city build the filtration plant after the Bloomberg administration made these promises. Other projects throughout the city -- from Willets Point to Atlantic Yards to Yankee Stadium -- also faced local opposition and entail similarly elaborate agreements for community improvements, affordable housing and more. The ongoing saga of the filtration plant in the north Bronx shows the need for constant vigilance by residents and elected officials to make sure these promises are kept.

Going Underground

The plant's roots go back to the late 1990s. The federal government has deemed much of the city's water so pristine that it need not undergo filtration. Since 1998, though, the city has been under a court order to begin filtering the portion of its water supply that originates in the Croton watershed, east of the Hudson River, so that it can meet federal drinking water standards. For nearly two decades, residents and elected officials in the northern Bronx fought the city's attempts to build a water filtration plant there. They succeeded in blocking the first proposed location at the Jerome Park Reservoir.

Van Cortlandt Park is number 2 on the map above.

Many pushed for the plant to be built outside of the city, at a non-residential site in Westchester County. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the city's water supply, preferred the Bronx site because of its proximity to existing water tunnels as well as for various engineering issues. It also wanted to keep the filtration plant within the city borders for security reasons. City construction unions lobbied heavily to put the plant in the Bronx.

In 2003, the city won the necessary approval from the state legislature to build an underground facility on 28 acres of Van Cortlandt Park beneath the driving range of the park's Mosholu Golf Course. In return, the Bloomberg administration agreed to spend $200 million to restore and build parks in every Bronx assembly district plus $40 million on improvements in Van Cortlandt Park. It promised that environmental impacts would be mitigated and jobs would go to local residents.

The final environmental impact statement determined that building the plant in a 10-story-deep hole blasted from the bedrock, and then restoring the surface, would cost less than building at the more distant above-ground site in Westchester.

The Cost Increases

Plant opponents argue that it defies basic common sense to think that building a one-of-kind underground facility would be less expensive than a standard plant above ground. They say that the environmental agency deliberately understated the costs of building in Van Cortlandt Park to convince people it was the best location.

Since 2003, the projected cost of building the Croton Water Filtration Plant, as the project is called, and the associated off-site infrastructure has risen from $1.3 billion to more than $3 billion. It has been plagued by delays as well. Originally set for completion in 2006, the city now expects it to come on line in 2012.

The delays have already cost the city money. The federal government fined New York City $4.78 million after it missed a 2007 deadline for hiring a primary contractor for the plant.

Financing for the city Department of Environmental Protection, including debt service on large capital projects like the filtration plant, comes from water and sewer fees, not general city revenues. The department says that two recent increases in city water rates are not related to rising costs at the filtration plant. Whether or not that is true, ultimately city residents and businesses will bear the additional costs.

"The costs have turned out to be what we feared -- enormous -- and the water rate payers are the ones who pay," said Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz, who represents the area and is an outspoken critic of the plant.

In April 2008, New York City Comptroller William Thompson began an audit of the project, which is still in progress, according to press officer Laura Rivera.

The city Independent Budget Office analyzed the costs in an October 2008 report. "We tried to look at how much of it is due to general construction cost escalation, sometimes known as inflation, and our sense is that explains about 45 percent of the increase," budget office deputy director George Sweeting said, according to the Riverdale Press. He added that it would be fair to assume that the plant's costs would have ballooned wherever the plant was built. He cautioned that the analysis is not an audit.

"A number of factors, including general inflation in the construction industry and the highly competitive construction market in New York City, contributed to the rise in construction costs for the Croton plant," Angel Román, deputy press secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection, wrote in an email message.

Design changes and the withdrawal of the original contractor further added to the cost.

The report from the budget office shows that more than $600 million in projected costs were not included in the 2003 final supplemental environmental impact statement. These costs were not included in the estimates for either location, said budget office analyst Ana Champeny.

Certainly major cost overruns are not unusual. Last week Thompson issued a report indicating that the cost of capital projects, which are funded primarily with debt, has escalated by 187 percent since fiscal year 1990.

Requests by Dinowitz and other Bronx officials for a full city, state or federal investigation of the construction costs and potential conflicts of interest in the decision to site the plant have gone unanswered.

One possible conflict, according to plant critics, involves Christopher Ward, who was commissioner of the city Department of Environmental Protection at the time of the plant's approval and now chairs the Port Authority. "We know that the main advocacy group for building in Van Cortlandt Park was the General Contractors Association. We also know that on the day the City Council gave final approval for the plan, Ward resigned, and almost a year later took the top job at the General Contractors Association," Dinowitz said. His year wait, Dinowitz charges, fulfilled the letter but not the spirit of city conflict of interest laws.

Reducing the Environmental Impact

Aside from the costs in dollars, an undertaking of this magnitude carries a number of environmental costs, bringing significant noise, dust, vehicular exhaust and other possible hazards.

"The project requires enough concrete to build a sidewalk from New York to Miami and enough pipe to reach the top of the Empire State Building 140 times over. Workers carved out enough dirt from the ground to fill more than 100,000 dump trucks," Roman wrote in an email.

The project's environmental impact statement called for minimizing the effects of such a mammoth effort on the adjacent community, home to about 26,000 people in a half-mile radius.

Residents say that construction crews successfully muffled the noise of blasting to prepare the underground site, but it took several years before the Department of Environmental Protection was able to get pollution controls installed on construction vehicles at the site, as promised.

The Croton Facility Monitoring Committee, which includes representatives of local community boards, elected officials and the parks and environment departments, was established to provide oversight of construction.

Lyn Pyle, who lives across the street and was on the monitoring committee during the first year of construction, said the environment department was unable to do anything to reduce pollution from the parade of trucks going back and forth through the neighborhood. The situation improved after the city passed a law in 2007 requiring trucks to have the best available pollution controls.

Residents say that, with prodding from community representatives on the monitoring committee, the Department of Environmental Protection has become more sensitive to the neighborhoods' concerns. The process at Van Cortlandt Park is much better than the one at Yankee Stadium, which does not have a mechanism for community oversight, said Karen Argenti, a former Bronx resident who has remained involved in both issues.

Nevertheless, there remains a legacy of mistrust of the city. It was reinforced last summer when the environment department announced that it would use explosives to dig a shaft at Jerome Park Reservoir, across the street from the Bronx High School of Science. A judge blocked the blasting, and the agency ultimately decided to use surface drilling instead.

Longtime watchdogs also are concerned about the leakage of large amounts of groundwater at the underground construction site, which they said is enormously wasteful. The project has a permit to discard up to 1.2 million gallons of groundwater and stormwater runoff a day into the city's sewage system during construction.

The design for restoring the surface includes creating artificial wetlands to filter and hold runoff as well as any remaining groundwater flows. “We anticipate that the final design will incorporate several beneficial reuse and management strategies,” Román wrote in an email.

Jobs for the Community

As with many projects, the city sold the filtration plant on the promise of jobs for local (typically minority) residents. Very few of the jobs have materialized, however.

At the Croton plant, federal restrictions against hiring people based on where they live hampered such efforts. The lack of a labor agreement with the contractor to set aside apprenticeships for non-union members has also hindered job creation efforts. In addition, many young Bronx residents don't have the high school degree or training to gain entry to the various construction unions that control the jobs, said Gregory Faulkner, who has been deeply involved in this issue as chair of Bronx Community Board 7 and the monitoring committee.

In seeking subcontracting jobs, minority businesses, which tend to be small, face obstacles such as the prohibitive cost of insurance, the lack of political connections and a demanding certification process.

"It is very troubling when you have a community that needs jobs and you see billions of dollars being spent and they don't go to the community," said Faulkner. He said, however, that the Department of Environmental Conservation and Skanska, the contractor constructing the plant, are making improvements.

Several programs show promise, he said. Skanska has trained two classes of local contractors in a program it created, and the environment department provided funding to Project H.I.R.E., a construction skills training program of Bronx Community College, which has trained 60 neighborhood residents so far.

The environment department reported to the monitoring committee that Bronx residents held 23 percent of the filtration plant jobs in the last month. Faulkner said that percentage is greater than several years ago, but the agency's goal of 25 percent is too low. "I'd like it at 80 percent," he said.

The parks department does not have figures on how many local workers or contractors have been hired to build or renovate Bronx parks. "Our contractors have employed Bronx residents for the Croton park projects and we encourage them to continue to do so whenever possible," parks spokesperson Jesslyn Moser wrote in an email. "Parks seeks the lowest bidders for our park construction projects. Unfortunately, some of the Bronx based subcontractors are not the lowest responsive bidders to our projects so they are not hired."

Parks Benefits

When the water plant was approved, many people expressed skepticism that the $240 million for fixing up Bronx parks would really come through. Much of it has, though. So far, the city has spent $120 million to complete 23 of the 67 promised park projects, according to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. Another 20 are under construction and the rest are in the pipeline. Asked if the current economic crisis might affect the funding, he said, "I think it's highly unlikely these things will be cut."

"I think the real story here is how much good has been accomplished for the citizens of the Bronx in addition to the public good created by the filtration plant," Benepe said.

Even critics agree. The parks are "the one positive that's come out of this project," said Dinowitz. But he and many residents say that it was too high a price to pay. "The Bronx should not have to accept such an awful project in its midst to get money for parks," he said.

Sachkerah Woods Playground bronx
Photo from
The newly renovated Sachkerah Woods Playground.

The $2.3 million Sachkerah Woods Playground adjacent to the filtration plant site was one of the first projects. It was designed with a great deal of community involvement, and residents are very happy with it, said Ora Holloway, a 32-year resident who led a long community effort to rid that corner of the park of drugs and prostitution and build a playground.

Restoring the golf course has proved more controversial. Many people predicted that security concerns would prompt the city to restrict public use in the area over the plant. But plans are moving forward for a new driving range, golf clubhouse and parking lot on top of the plant.

These plans, however, have drawn some opposition. At a recent presentation of the design, residents were dismayed to find that the clubhouse and a 75-car parking lot encroached upon a grassy field next to the new playground, a space where families picnic and young people play pick-up sports.

"In the summertime, that area is so full it is unbelievable," said Holloway.

Barry McLoughlin, executive director of the Mosholu Golf Course, which is run by the nonprofit youth development program The First Tee, said, though, that the city had agreed to restore the parking once the plant was complete and that the spaces are needed to accommodate golfers and school buses and provide revenue for the program.

After objections from residents, the city's Design Commission gave preliminary approval to the project on the condition that the agencies restudy the parking lot design. Benepe said that the parking lot has since been moved. The final design is expected to be released in a few months.

From Park to Plant

Although the city seems to be fulfilling its promises on improving parks, the placement of the filtration plant in the park remains troubling to advocates, who say that city infrastructure doesn't belong in parks, unless there is no alternative.

The project, they say, set a disturbing precedent for taking over, or "alienating," parkland for a non-park use over the objections of elected officials who represent the community. In effect, this deprives the community of a say in what happens in their park. To add to advocates' concerns, the filtration plant decision was soon followed by the taking of Macombs Dam Park for a new Yankee Stadium before the community had a chance to protest.

"Parkland is an easy mark," said Dinowitz. "No one lives there. The city both under this and the previous administration treats parkland as prime real estate and that should never be."

Benepe noted, however, that numerous city parks, including Central Park, have city infrastructure. Because of the mitigation money, he said, "parks in the Bronx are replete with hundreds of acres of recreational facilities that are being dramatically improved. That has never happened before with any public facility put into a park."

Yankee Stadium presents a more troubling picture. As of last spring, the cost of replacing the parkland the Yankees took over for their new stadium had almost doubled, and many of the new parks, set to open along with the new stadium this spring, had fallen two years behind schedule.

Residents say that the new parks are not a fair trade because they are much farther from where people live than the old facilities were, and part of the replacement is artificial turf on top of a parking garage.

The Yankees say they are fulfilling promises to provide jobs for minorities and woman, construction contracts to Bronx businesses and a job-training program made in a Community Benefits Agreement with Bronx officials. So far, though, there has been no independent oversight to verify this. In addition, the team was supposed to set aside money -- about $1.2 million a year -- for local nonprofit groups, but it took more than two years before the first grants were distributed.

The recent parkland takings have led park advocates to seek greater protection for public land. The nonprofit advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks is exploring legislation that requires the city to complete an environmental review before parkland can be taken.

"Outcomes are important - you can't delay projects forever," said Christian DiPalermo, the organization's executive director. "But the more people are heard, the better your development or your change of use is going to be accepted in the long run."

A Federal Stimulus for City Parks

Photo (cc) Chris Tofu

Over the past eight years, federal support for urban parks has largely evaporated. Now parks advocates hope that a new administration with strong city connections will put urban parks back on the agenda.

This would come at a time of increased appreciation for parks in cities. Even as federal dollars for parks have dwindled, a renewed investment in parks and public spaces from city, state and private sources has helped revitalize urban centers. Cities all over the country are realizing that fixing up parks, adding recreation and greening the cityscape not only improves residents' quality of life and the environment, but also attracts business investment and raises real estate values.

Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley has been in the vanguard, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also been building a green legacy, adding more than 300 acres of parks and renovating parks and playgrounds throughout the city, continuing the effort to restore parks that was launched by nonprofit conservancies beginning in the 1980s. The Bloomberg administration has spent $1.5 billion in capital funding on parks projects so far, according to parks department spokesman Philip Abramson. New and restored parks and sports fields and the unfurling of parks and greenways along the waterfront have created outdoor recreation and community gathering spots that that make people want to stay in the city to raise their families, instead of dispersing to the suburbs.

The Change in Washington

Two federal programs provide grants for state and local park projects and inner-city park rehabilitation, maintenance and recreation programs: the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program. During the Bush administration, both received little to none of the total amount Congress was authorized to spend when the legislation passed in the 1970s - $900 million a year for the conservation fund and $725 million over five years for the urban park recovery program.

Now, though, parks advocates see reason for optimism. President-elect Barack Obama is the first president in decades to come from a city, and he has promised to renew efforts to protect the environment. The advocates hope he will begin by including parks in his of proposed economic stimulus package of infrastructure rebuilding and energy projects.

"A lot of people on the Obama team are from Chicago and have seen what the whole investment in green infrastructure did for that city," said Drew Becher, executive director of the New York Restoration Project, which is partnering with the city on its Million Trees project and improving parks in upper Manhattan and the Bronx. "We can take this and make it something on the national scale."

Parks as Stimulus

In mid-December, the citywide advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks and a number of city park conservancies and other nonprofit park partners signed a joint letter to the New York State congressional delegation calling for the inclusion of parks in the federal stimulus package.

The letter mentions numerous projects in the city that are fully planned or already under way where work could begin within a few months, as would be required under the plan. These include the Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway. The New York City parks department reportedly has more than 25 projects, at a cost of $1 billion, ready to be started within 120 days.

PlaNYC 2030, Mayor Bloomberg's blueprint for making the city environmentally and economically sustainable as it grows over the next 25 years, aims to put a park or public plaza within a 10-minute walk of every resident, complete greenways, provide more playing fields and playgrounds, plant a million new trees, and add street plantings and "bluebelts" to help capture stormwater runoff that is polluting the harbor.

The funding for this new wave of green infrastructure remains in place, said Bloomberg spokesman Marc La Vorgna, but last spring revenue shortfalls caused the city to stretch out the current (FY 2009) four-year capital plan to a five-year schedule, which will slow all capital construction, including parks. "We already have a built-in program of projects that could move forward now if we had an infusion of cash," said La Vorgna. "Within that plan, there is a heavy emphasis on parks."

Greening the Country by Greening Cities

Although the Obama team is focused on conservation, energy efficiency and the development of new energy sources, it is not clear whether it is looking at the role of green and livable urban communities as part of its strategy to reduce energy use and curb the greenhouse emissions that cause global warming.

Vehicles burn two thirds of the petroleum used in the United States and produce about a quarter of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to developing more efficient vehicles, policies and programs that encourage people to live in cities and to cluster suburban development would diminish the consumption of fossil fuels. These would include changing the patterns of where we live and how we commute. Improved mass transit, making communities more pedestrian and bicycle friendly and "smart growth" that encourages clustered development can all play a role.

Another piece is creating and sustaining vibrant cities and cohesive communities -- and the parks and public spaces that help make them that way. Making cities and towns more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly further reduces their carbon footprints, as does planting trees and other vegetation. Minimizing sprawl also protects other equally vital resources, such as clean water, farmland and wildlife habitat.

Some observers express concern that, in our rush to invest in infrastructure and get people working immediately, we could cast in stone environmentally wasteful development patterns and continue the haphazard 20th century suburban and exurban exodus.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, for one, wrote recently that he feared the stimulus plan would be the federal version of "This Old House," reinforcing the existing sprawl instead of building on the emerging movement to create town centers and meeting places that reverse the isolation and, though he didn't mention it, the unsustainability, of the suburbs.

The Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit that works to turn public spaces into community places, seconded that concern in a discussion about the proposed infrastructure investment on its forum for a new "placemaking" movement: "There is a disturbing message that this money will be spent overwhelmingly on roads and bridges and a real danger that the (stimulus) plan will retard innovation and entrench us in the past."

Assuming it comes to fruition, the billions of dollars in federal spending will shape the American landscape for the next century. Will it entrench the wasteful consumption of energy, land, water and natural resources or put us on the way toward a more livable and sustainable strategy that will give a real symbolic significance to Obama's acceptance speech in Grant Park?

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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