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The Future of Ridgewood Reservoir: Birds or Baseball?


The latest skirmish in the escalating turf war over the use of city parkland focuses on an unlikely natural area, a former Queens reservoir now claimed by woods and wetlands.

The 50-acre, three-basin Ridgewood Reservoir sits on high ridge where Queens and Brooklyn meet, just south of the Jackie Robinson Parkway, in the northeast corner of Highland Park. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 2007 sustainability blueprint, PlaNYC 2030, identified the site as one of eight underdeveloped park properties the city plans to transform with active recreational facilities and allocated $50 million in capital funding for Ridgewood Reservoir alone.

While local residents, environmentalists and parks advocates agree that the reservoir, now officially off-limits to the public, should become more accessible, they disagree over how the area should be used. The parks department is considering a proposal to put ball fields in one of the reservoir's basins. Citywide and local environmental and parks groups want to keep the basin intact as a nature preserve and use the funding for new and improved facilities elsewhere in Highland Park. They have political support from the two local community boards, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and many other elected officials, including City Comptroller (and mayoral candidate) William Thompson, who co-authored a New York Times op-ed piece on the issue with Robert Kennedy Jr. in May.

However, many residents of the adjacent neighborhoods of Cypress Hills, East New York and Bushwick - areas with very few parks and trees - support the ball field proposal. On June 19, about 100 people from East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), an organization dedicated to empowering residents to improve their communities, demonstrated on the steps of City Hall and then went inside to testify at a hearing of the City Council parks committee, voicing their support for more sports fields.

As in so many park conflicts, the competing visions for Ridgewood Reservoir reflect the difficulty of balancing the many different claims on the city's precious open space. And, as in several other recent parks controversies, such as the one surrounding using funds from private schools to build soccer fields on Randalls Island, it raises the question of whether parks projects tend to be determined by the availability of funding, rather than through a comprehensive planning process that takes into account all available parkland, community needs, environmental benefits, cost-effectiveness and site suitability.

A Hidden Gem

For 100 years, Ridgewood Reservoir, located on the southwestern side of a large swath of open space that includes several cemeteries and Forest Park in Queens, was part of the city's water system. It was taken out of regular service in 1959 and completely drained in 1989. Surrounded by a chain-link fence, it was known mostly to residents who exercised on the perimeter path and people who used the basins illegally for a paintball course.

 

The reservoir's three adjacent clay-lined basins, with sloping, rock-reinforced walls, have an average depth of about 20 feet. Over the years, wetland and forest vegetation has grown inside the two outer basins. In the middle basin, a pond persists, surrounded by thick stands of the invasive reed phragmites. Several small buildings - a caretaker cottage and pumphouses - have fallen into disrepair.

On a sunny day in June, I visited the reservoir with staff from New York City Audubon, including Glenn Phillips, executive director, and Susan Elbin, director of conservation. After parking next to a picnic area shaded by large, graceful trees, we climbed up a stone stairway set into the hillside to the path circling the reservoir.

Joggers passed as we looked through the chain-link fence into a sunken forest overgrown with vines. Bird sang and flitted in the treetops. The reservoir is a stopover for birds migrating along the Atlantic flyway and provides breeding territory for nearly 40 species, many of which are rarely found in the city. So far, 137 bird species have been counted in the reservoir basins. There is also an abundance of butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies and other insects, as well as several rare native plant species. "How many people pass by here every day and have no idea that this is one of the treasures of New York City?" Phillips said.

Serendipitously, we met up with a large contingent from the parks department, who invited us to go down into the basins with them, helping us descend the steep sides with ropes.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who was part of the group, explained that the department's Natural Resources Group has inventoried and mapped the numerous distinct ecological communities in the three basins.

We walked single file through the tangle of shrubs and trees to a mossy opening in the early successional forest of Basin 1. Mike Feller, the parks department's chief naturalist, called it the "'Lost World' in reverse. Twenty years ago, he said, the basin was an open wet meadow. He recalled walking there in 1988 or 1989 amid tall sedges and sweet gum and red maple saplings. Today, it is growing into a mosaic of predominantly native forests adapted to wet conditions. Ideally, these diverse and ecologically rich plant communities could be self-sustaining, said Benepe, although invasive vines and trees have also gotten a foothold.

Back on the pathway, we walked around to the reservoir's northern side, where an opening in the trees offers a bucolic vista of the pond and marsh in Basin 2. Finally, we descended into the third and largest basin - where athletic fields might go. This basin has what Feller described as a "split personality." At its southern end is a mix of wetland plant communities similar to Basin 1. But the northern half, where the topsoil is very thin, is overrun with non-native, invasive trees and shrubs, and lacks the ecological diversity and value for wildlife of the other sections. One large area is composed almost exclusively of just two plant types: Black locust trees form a canopy over a knee-high understory of mugwort.

Feller explained that this section is full of seeds of undesirable plants that the wind and birds would inevitably spread elsewhere in the reservoir, possibly crowding out the indigenous plans. "The sooner you remove the invasives the better," he said. "There comes a point where the seed load is too high." In light of that, "Doing nothing is the worst of all scenarios," Benepe said.

The Proposed Ball Field Plan

PlaNYC called for using all of Basin 3 for active recreation, but the current proposal, a preliminary idea from the design consultant Mark Morrison Associates, would put athletic facilities on 10 acres in the basin, about 20 percent of the reservoir's total acreage. Building and maintaining fields would require bulldozing through the reservoir walls to provide ground-level access for trucks and machinery, as well as razing the forest.

So far, nothing has been decided. "It's not clear we're going to build fields," Benepe said. "It's completely up in the air-a possibility but not a given." At the City Council hearing, he mentioned some of the other ideas the department is considering, such adding bikeways and walkways, providing interpretive maps and converting one of the historic structures into a nature center, though presumably these could be done in addition to, as well as instead of, the athletic facilities.

From the commissioner's testimony at the hearing, it is clear that his department favors combining natural areas and recreation in the basin. This, officials believe, would not only expand recreational opportunities to improve the health and quality of life for New Yorkers, as mandated by PlaNYC, but also make the basin easily accessible for forest management, maintenance and crime control.

As to suggestions that the department put more fields in other parts of Highland Park instead, Benepe noted that the department is building a multi-use field on some of the old tennis courts in the lower part of the park, but the "issue with Highland Park is that much of it is on a hill. Virtually all of the flat land is taken up by fields or other facilities."

After an in-depth site analysis by the design consultant, the parks department will start developing conceptual plans "that will be the basis for discussion with various community groups, elected officials and the community boards," said Benepe. The goal is to begin the first phase in October 2009 and complete work by spring 2011.

Reversing the Neglect

Highland Park has numerous recreational facilities, including basketball, tennis and handball courts, baseball fields, two playgrounds, a children's garden, a running track and walking trails. The Brooklyn-Queens Greenway goes along the southern side of the reservoir. But the park has suffered from decades of neglect, community members say, and several decades ago crime there was rampant. Residents do praise the parks department with making substantial improvements since then.

At the City Council hearing, several leaders of East Brooklyn Congregations said more needs to be done. They called for the department to repair existing fields, fix the paths, stairways and lighting around the reservoir, and create more places to play baseball, soccer and other sports inside the basin.

They stressed that this must be done in an environmentally sound way. "If you come here, it's because you do love nature," said Juan Romero, a parishioner at St. Joseph Patron Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick and an EBC leader.

However, they made it clear they want sports to play a role in the reservoir. "We're not against birds, but to allow the reservoir to remain strictly for the birds would not be in the best interests of 500,000 people," said Bishop David Benke, pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Cypress Hills and EBC co-founder. He said that bringing more people into the area for active recreation would enhance the mission of an environmental center and make the natural areas safer.

At the hearing, Benepe cited numerous examples of city parks where wildlife thrives in natural areas next to recreational facilities, including Central Park, Prospect Park and Alley Pond. He noted that this department has a great deal of experience with the stewardship of natural areas. "We want to make these better habitats by managing and promoting growth of native species and planting species that provide food for wildlife," he said.

Keeping the Resevoir Whole

Environmental and park groups acknowledge the need for more recreation and respect that the parks department has chosen the least valuable part of the basin for its ball field proposal. But, they say, Ridgewood Reservoir is a unique place worthy of special protection. "Put in hiking trails instead of ball fields," said Elbin.

Save Ridgewood Resevoir Video Still
Video (c) Robb Jett

The spell cast by this surprising urban wilderness has inspired a year-and-a-half-long environmental dance project. A YouTube video (click here to view it) shows footage of the reservoir and its wildlife, explains its history and makes the case for its preservation.

"Ridgewood Reservoir has habitat for birds and plants not found elsewhere, particularly in that part of Brooklyn and Queens in need of natural areas," said Phillips. "The value of that particular property is greater than you might expect because it's surrounded on all sides by open space."

"This is an urban area that doesn't have a lot of natural areas that are accessible to residents of the city, especially the youth," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. "One could argue that a hike through a natural area is just as important for youth as playing soccer."

Opponents of the ball fields fear that even a limited plan could have a major impact on the area. "Even if you open half of the basin to ball fields and leave the other half entirely intact, it's going to change the dynamic," Phillips said. Ball fields would inevitably bring greater disturbances - -including dogs - to the forested areas, and it is not known how this would affect the nesting or migrating birds.

Many people also worry that if fields go in the reservoir, there will be pressure to expand them in the future. They cite a compromise Bloomberg brokered in 2003 that scaled down a plan for recreational facilities in Staten Island's Bloomingdale Woods. Elected officials there are still pushing to build more fields in the wetland forest. "With easy access, you are always fighting a battle to prevent a ball field," said Phillips.

They have also raised concerns about the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of building sports fields in the reservoir. Although fields would go in the driest part of the basin, the reservoir is a depression lined with clay specifically designed to hold water. Would ball fields be drowned in a heavy rain?

In addition, opponents point out that development in the basin seems to contradict PlaNYC's goal of making the city more environmentally sustainable by preserving and adding natural areas to cool and clean the air and absorb stormwater runoff. The reservoir is in the watershed of Jamaica Bay and the sewershed of Newtown Creek. When heavy rains overwhelm the sewage system, untreated sewage spills into both bodies of water. "Any increase in the amount of impervious surfaces at Ridgewood Reservoir would result in an increase in stormwater and consequently an increase in combined sewage overflows that already pose a serious burden on the city's waterways," said Andrew Rafter in testimony for the environmental group Riverkeeper.

Rushing Ahead?

Further complicating the politics of the issue is distrust by some citizens and advocacy groups of the city government and the parks department stemming from earlier parkland conflicts, such as the taking of Macombs Dam Park for the new Yankee Stadium even before most residents were aware it was happening, and the controversial redesigns of Washington Square and Union Square parks.

Some supporters of the ball fields see signs of NIMBYism in the impressive line-up of political force against developing the reservoir because several prominent politicians live in large houses abutting Highland Park.

"My fear is that a lot of this is just delay tactics," said Benke of EBC. "That money is ephemeral. We're of the opinion that the time to strike is now. Do it now and find a way to use those 10 acres or show us an actual plan to reconfigure the park that can be accomplished over a short period of time."

Others disagree, believing any plan to develop the park needs further consideration. They worry that the administration, in the push to put PlaNYC's initiatives into effect before Bloomberg's term ends, may not be fully considering all the options. Does it make sense to breach the reservoir walls and disrupt this urban experiment with nature when there may be other nearby sites that would be less expensive and intrusive to develop? Is the project being driven by the availability of PlaNYC money and not by a more holistic look at what works best where?

"I don't think we've done a good enough study of open space availability throughout the city," said DiPalermo of New Yorkers for Parks. "There is no real master plan for parks and open space."

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

The Need for a Parks Plan


The Open Space Index
(c) 2007, New Yorkers for Parks
The Open Space Index will create a set of targets to help to ensure that the park needs
of New Yorkers are met.

As New York redevelops and rezones areas throughout the city, the government envisions new parks and other open spaces as key parts of many of these projects. However, unlike Chicago or London, New York City has no statutory comprehensive plan for the city - much less for its parks and open spaces.

Consequently, the fate of parks and open space is decided in an ad-hoc manner, with little input from affected communities and without sufficient consideration for local and regional needs. With one million additional New Yorkers expected by 2030, the city must look seriously at how it manages, uses and plans for parks and open spaces.

A Good First Step

PlaNYC is all good news for parks and open space. Unlike the proposals in other parts of the plan, meeting the goals on parks is entirely within the mayor's power, requiring no action by the City Council or state legislature. As a result of the plan, the budget for the Department of Parks and Recreation has increased more than it has in decades. This has led to major capital investments in parks in each borough as well as the renovation of previously locked school yards so they can serve as neighborhood playgrounds. Simultaneously, the city and the private New York Restoration Project have taken steps to plant a million trees. These initiatives are all much needed and generally have been well received by communities.

PlaNYC sets a goal of having every New Yorker within a 10-minute walk to a park. Fortunately, most New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs already live that close to a park.

What is needed now is to pick up where the mayor's plan leaves off. After the walk to the park, what do I find? Is my park clean? Does it have the features that serve my community? How far do I have to walk to have my open space needs fully satisfied?

London's Example

For now, New York has no over-arching parks policy or master plan to address such issues. Other cities do. London, for one, has a plan that lays out specific strategies for its open space goals. Like New York, London dictates how close people should be to open space, but it goes beyond PlaNYC to set distances for different types of open spaces (recreational areas, destination parks, playgrounds). It presents detailed benchmarks and guidelines for achieving these goals.

The London plan was vetted through a public process and is codified in law. This ensures the longevity of the plan. PlaNYC lays out Mayor Michael Bloomberg's agenda for sustainability, but has not gone through a legislative process, leading to concern about what will happen after he leaves office in 2010.

A Tool for New York City

To begin to formulate standards for open space planning, New Yorkers for Parks aims to create an Open Space Index for the New York. Much like profiles the health department uses to assess the health of a community district, the Open Space Index will be a way to evaluate the condition of open space in a neighborhood. Through a combination of analysis of current New York City open space and of measures in other cities, New Yorkers for Parks will develop an index of targets for parks and open space access. For example, it could determine that every New York City community district should have 2.5 acres of parks and open space per 1,000 residents or 15 percent green roof coverage

The index (which is presently being reviewed by an advisory group) will evaluate neighborhood open space elements such as tree canopy cover, green roof cover, permeable land area, the percentage of parks in acceptable condition, acres of open space per 1,000 people (active recreation space people and passive space) and walking distance to a park by type of facility (pocket park, field, destination park etc.). Given the unique characteristics of New York City's geography and land use, the index must be flexible enough to be relevant across diverse neighborhoods in all five boroughs.

A Test on the Lower East Side

Upon completion of the Open Space Index, New Yorkers For Parks and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer will conduct a pilot neighborhood study in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The first phase will be a complete evaluation of the existing open space in the neighborhood using a combination of existing digital mapping data and field surveys. The project will also feature a comprehensive survey of users at at least one park in the neighborhood. This will help assess the open space priorities and needs of area residents. We will also conduct two community workshops to elicit feedback on preliminary findings and end results.

We will compare the current actual condition of open space elements on the Lower East Side with the targets outlined in the Open Space Index. Each individual factor (tree canopy cover, acres of active recreation space, etc) will receive a score based on how close the area comes to the "target."

An Open Space Index Summary Report will provide a picture of the open space opportunities, qualities and features of the Lower East Side. This report will provide a basis for negotiating with the city and with builders on how to modify and improve development plans and community benefits packages.

Once this test project is complete we will evaluate it and consider how what we learned on the Lower East Side can be applied to other neighborhoods in Manhattan and throughout the city as a whole.

As the wave of development in New York City continues, the importance of open space becomes more critical. More and more, communities must negotiate with developers to obtain their fair share of scarce open space. Building on PlaNYC, creating a clearer picture of what a neighborhood needs can empower communities to foster projects that promote the sustainable development of our city.

Micaéla Birmingham is the planning director of http//www.ny4p.org New Yorkers for Parks, the city's oldest and leading citywide park advocacy organization. To get involved in the Parks 2030 project, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 21-838-9410.  

Tracking Crime in the Parks


For many years, New Yorkers were afraid to go into the parks. Instead of seeing them as an escape from urban stress -- a place to exercise, read a book, enjoy a picnic -- people viewed the run-down parks as even more dangerous than the streets. Over the past decade and a half, though, the parks have become much safer. Crime rates have dropped citywide, and one park after another has been restored. The city has increased maintenance staff and, since 2005, doubled the number of Park Enforcement Patrol officers, who enforce park rules and deter vandalism and crime.

But crime is still a problem, and until recently, the city had no hard data about how many crimes occurred in the parks. In the absence of that kind of solid information, when a terrible crime in a park is splashed across the headlines, like the 2004 murder of drama student Sarah Fox in Inwood Hill Park, it casts a shadow of fear over all the parks.

The New York City Police Department's Compstat computerized crime-tracking program, which analyzes patterns of crime by precinct and uses that information to address problem areas, has been credited with dramatically reducing crime in the city. But Compstat doesn't track crimes in parks separately (except in Central Park, which has its own precinct).

With the passage of Local Law 114 in 2005, the city began gathering data on crime in the parks for the first time. The law, which was introduced by Councilmembers Peter Vallone Jr. and Joseph Addabbo Jr., requires the police to report felonies that take place in parks and make the information available to the City Council. The program was supposed to be phased in over three years, beginning with a pilot project in 20 parks. The first data from the project have just been released in "Tracking Crime in New York City Parks," a report from the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks.

An Incomplete Picture

For each of the 20 parks, "Tracking Crime" provides the number of felony complaints, in seven different categories, from April 2006 to September 2007. The data examined by the report comes from the four largest (though not necessarily most heavily used) parks in each borough. For comparison's sake, it also includes crime numbers for Central Park, which has been monitoring crime for years.

There was a small increase in crimes in these parks over this time period, but as the report notes, the pilot project covered too few parks, over too short a time period, to allow accurate generalizations about trends citywide. It is also difficult to compare crime rates across parks because the parks department does not collect information on how many people use most of its parks.

Of the 20 parks in the report, Flushing Meadows Park, with 99 felonies, had the highest number of reported crimes. To put that in perspective, however, the report notes that a third of the crimes in 2006 and nearly half in 2007 occurred not on parkland but at the two sports venues within the park, Shea Stadium and the National Tennis Center.

Central Park, with 25 million visitors, had 103 major crimes in 2006, but its crime rate was lower than that of Prospect Park, which had about half as many felonies reported (57) but a third as many visitors. Two parks, both in Staten Island, had no reported crimes, but one, Fresh Kills Park, is not developed yet.

The tracking data also turned up a significant drop in crime in the colder months, when park usage is lower.

One finding that merits further scrutiny is that some parks had much higher percentages of violent crime than others. Parks where more than 70 percent of the crimes were violent (mostly robbery and felony assault, with a very few rapes and murders) included Prospect Park, Fort Washington Park, Inwood Hill Park, Forest Park and Riverside Park. On the other hand, only 35 percent of the crimes reported in Central Park were violent.

Making Parks Safer

Under the law, the city was supposed to expand the crime-tracking program to a total of 100 parks after one year, 200 parks after two years, and to all parks over one acre in size after three years. It has fallen behind this timetable, and the police department has not said when it would be able to meet it. New Yorkers for Parks called on the city to expand the program to 100 parks immediately and to all parks by 2010.

At a January hearing before the City Council Public Safety committee, the police department said that it still did not have the technology needed to give information on more than the 20 parks in the pilot project. At present, park crimes are still entered into the system manually. Vallone, who chairs the committee, called the lack of progress "disappointing at the very least." "We are trying to get the police to be a little more realistic and track parks that are most heavily used," he said.

The police department Web site posts crime data by precinct, but so far, information about crimes committed in parks is not available online. In its report, New Yorkers for Parks recommended that the parks department post park crime data on its Web site.

Vallone said that there is still a lack of communication between the police and the public. Referring to the discovery of a body in a pond in Flushing Meadows Park, which was part of a vicious crime wave for which two homeless teenagers were eventually arrested, he said, "It took a long time for police to alert the public" to a pattern in the crimes.

Beyond the need for more data, "Tracking Park Crime" focused on ways to keep the park safe. In particular, it called for the city to budget money for enough uniformed Parks Enforcement Patrol officers. They enforce park rules, such as prohibitions against adults using playgrounds, and issue summonses for health, traffic, sanitation and environmental violations. By keeping an eye on the parks, they also deter serious criminal activity. The report also suggested providing safety tips online and on signs in parks.

In his response (in PDF format), Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said the department would add information on safety practices to its Web site. Noting the importance of the Parks Enforcement Patrol, or PEP, in preventing crime, he said, "At the height of the season, we have over 800 uniformed staff in the parks, including full-time and seasonal PEP and Rangers, and fixed post enforcement officers. " He said that the parks department works closely with the police and has been reaching out to community organizations in an effort to design safer parks and deter crime.

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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