Gotham Gazette

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Drawn To The Parks

The day after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, it was a classic September day - warm, with golden sunshine, blue above and a breeze that hinted of fall. In one Brooklyn neighborhood, everyone seemed drawn to the park. As if by instinct, they sought the comfort of community and of nature.

People walked quietly by themselves or in pairs. Parents sat on the grass talking while their kids ran around or played ball. "It feels like a town square," someone said.

People talked of the horror they had witnessed from their rooftops and windows. They recounted close calls, what they had done that day, how they had walked home over the bridge.

They shared their grief and fear and shock. They traded information about what people could do to help. As they learned of who in the community were missing and dead, their pain and sadness deepened.

For many people, the meadows, the encircling trees, the sound of the wind in the leaves, provided some spiritual solace.

As the Project for Public Spaces noted on its website, throughout the city, friends and strangers gathered to mourn and comfort one another in the public parks - in Union Square, Washington Square, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, and undoubtedly wherever else there were neighborhood parks or community gardens.

New York has the reputation of a hurried city, where people are too busy to make connections. But if anything could characterize the aftermath of this unspeakable tragedy, it has been the coming together of neighbors. The events of the past week make us value even more the public places that draw us together, and the parks that give us contact with nature for consolation and contemplation.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

Governors Island, Community Gardens, Mayors Who Actually Care About Parks

As the deadline for selling Governors Island draws closer, the federal government has made it clear that New York State must fill in the details of its draft plan for the island by October 1st, and that the state legislature must approve the plan as law.

The state's plan calls for a new civic space on Governors Island, including a 50-acre park, sports fields, museums, and educational facilities, as well as a large hotel and conference center, offices, and restaurants. The plan would preserve the historic forts and buildings on the former Coast Guard base, while creating a new visitor destination in the harbor.

Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, co-sponsors with Rep. Ben Gilman of a bill to turn the island over to the state at a nominal cost, have called on the Pataki administration to step up its efforts to secure the island as a public space. Nadler and Maloney said they were only recently made aware that state legislation would be necessary, but that the state had been informed as long as six months ago.

Rep. Maloney said, "In five months, the federal government plans to sell Governors Island to the highest bidder and we are running out of time. It is time for Governor Pataki to get personally involved in this effort before it is too late."


Community gardeners marched to City Hall August 1 to present petitions for a referendum on turning community gardens over to the parks department. The gardeners also sought to call attention to the community garden legislation proposed by Ken Fisher and Adolfo Carrion that is stalled in City Council. The More Gardens! Coalition fell short of gathering the 30,000 signatures needed to get the proposal on the ballot. But Aresh Javadi, who helped start the coalition, says the last-minute referendum effort gathered 23,000 signatures in two months, showing widespread support for gardens. It also educated New Yorkers about the issue. "A lot of people thought that Bette Midler had saved all the gardens," Javadi said.

Two years ago, as the city was about to sell off more than 100 community gardens to developers, Bette Midler's New York Restoration Project and the Trust for Public Land stepped in to purchase them. But more than 400 gardens on city-owned lots are living on borrowed time. The city allowed residents to clean up and plant the vacant lots, but reserved the right to reclaim the land. The only thing holding off the bulldozers at a number of sites is a temporary restraining order won by State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who has filed a lawsuit to stop the city from razing the gardens.

State Supreme Court Justice Richard D. Huttner recently denied a request by the Giuliani administration to lift the restraining order. After the decision, Mayor Giuliani said it was "absurd" to block development on the lots. "There are people who don't have homes." The following week, responding to reports of a rise in homelessness in the city, the mayor blamed the gardeners for holding up the development of housing.

The Coalition for the Homeless issued a statement objecting "in the strongest possible terms" to the mayor's comments: "Given that the city has other parcels of land at its disposal, it is simply not necessary to encroach on the precious few remaining green spaces for new development of affordable housing. The technology, community commitment and manpower exist to deliver significant numbers of newly constructed homes. What has been lacking over the past few years is the fiscal commitment by the local government."

Gardeners plan more political theatre later this summer to identify support for gardens among the candidates running for office this fall. They have also gotten involved in the Parks 2001 campaign, which seeks to get candidates to pay attention to parks and open space and commit to increasing parks department funding to one percent of the city budget.


Imagine a mayor of New York City who talks about parks as a way to make his citizens happier. Who sees a park in every parcel of vacant or underutilized land -- even the rooftop of City Hall. Who believes parks are as essential as the water supply to the physical and emotional health of the city.

Speaking at a conference recently held by the Institute for Urban Parks in New York, two mayors - former mayor Enrique Penalosa of Bogota, Colombia, and Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago - actually said these things.

To a New Yorker, it was amazing.

As Joyce Purnick pointed out in her New York Times column about a mayoral forum held on the same day that Mayor Daley spoke, "In New York, parks are seen as a frill. The last four mayors have concentrated resources on core services, especially education and the police, and as a result, parks spending has been in decline." Of the six men running for mayor, only Peter Vallone has pledged to increase parks department funding to one percent of the budget, as a coalition of parks supporters has been advocating. The others say they believe funding for parks should be increased -- if the city can afford it.

The two mayors who spoke at the conference see it differently. To them, parks are a core service. Parks and public space are woven into the fabric of the city, furthering other important goals like education, public safety, and economic vitality.

As mayor, Penalosa added or restored 1200 parks for the rapidly growing yet poor population of his city, reclaimed the sidewalks from cars, and persuaded the voters to approve a future ban on cars in the city. Mayor Daley showed slide after slide illustrating the changes in Chicago: 300,000 trees planted, new riverfront and lakefront parkland, landscape ordinances requiring developers to install and maintain plantings around their property and in the public ways, and on and on.

Both mayors believe that if you want to improve the quality of life in a city (or as Penalosa plainly put it, to make its citizens happier) parks and public spaces should be high on the list of priorities.

They also believe that a better quality of life leads to a stronger economy. Mayor Daley said, "By and large, the places that are doing well today are places that are pleasant to live," noting that jobs follow people -- and companies -- where they want to live. Penalosa said, "A city is better not when it is richer but when it is happier. But something interesting happens. If it is happier, then it will get richer.... The most important competitive advantage a society can have in this new age of information is quality of life."

With the change in political leadership, it is time to change the old attitudes toward parks. The would-be mayors should start thinking more creatively about how green and public space can revive neighborhoods, boost the economy, and make New York City of the 21st century a happier, healthier, and more prosperous place to live.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.


Golf Course at Ferry Point Park

While environmentalists pursue legal action to stop the construction of a 175-acre golf course on the former municipal landfill at Ferry Point Park in the Bronx, city officials are trying to interest golf officials in making the Jack Nicklaus-designed course a PGA tournament site, the Daily News reported recently.

Mayor Rudy Guiliani, an avid golfer, has been talking up the idea of a tournament-level course at Ferry Point, and course developer Pierre Gagne recently met with officials from the PGA tour. There has even been discussion of annexing adjacent parkland to expand the course to 27 holes.

Meanwhile, environmental groups and residents of a nearby housing project, the Throggs Neck Houses, say the city went ahead with the project without thoroughly investigating the potential environmental problems of the site. Ferry Point was closed in the 1960s before laws regulating landfills were passed. The groups say the old dump contains toxic chemicals and explosive and possibly contaminated methane gas, and that the golf course construction is increasing residents' exposure to these hazards.

The mostly black and Hispanic residents of the housing project are also upset that the golf course is being walled off on their side of the park, preventing access to a 19.5-acre public waterfront park that is also part of the golf course development.

A lawsuit by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and the New York Public Interest Research Group to require a full environmental impact statement for the project was dismissed when the judge ruled that the suit did not meet the statute of limitations. The groups plan to appeal.

In a move to nullify another lawsuit filed by environmentalists and residents, the City Franchise and Concession Review Committee recently voted to approve, retroactively, a 35-year concession for the development company, Ferry Point Partners. City regulations require the unanimous vote of the committee for a concession contract longer than the usual 20 years. The second lawsuit charges that the Parks department had signed the contract and allowed construction to begin without getting this approval.

The Francise and Concession Review Committee consists of mayoral appointees except for the presidents of the affected boroughs and the city comptroller. Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who had previously refused to register the project, and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer voted with the mayors' appointees to make the approval unanimous. Calling the vote a "back-room deal," Leslie Lowe, executive director of the Environmental Justice Alliance, said, "What is particularly disgraceful about what Hevesi has done is that this is a terrible deal for the city." She noted that the city's contract indemnifies the developer from lawsuits for environmental problems, even if the developer has made it worse. She said, "If the people of Throggs Neck sue, the taxpayers pay." Calls to Hevesi's office for comment were not returned.

Ferrer's press secretary, John Melia, said that the borough president voted to approve the concession "with reservations," entering a statement into the record urging Ferry Point Partners and the state Department of Environmental Conservation to "fully and completely investigate the potential environmental and public health impacts" of the plan. "The environmental concerns are valid and the borough president wants to see that they addressed properly," Melia said. "This project, and any project of large scale, is going to cause controversy. Do you not go forward after two decades of nothing getting done or do you make a decision when someone wants to invest a lot of money and create recreation for the people of the Bronx?"

Melia also insisted that the side of the park next to the housing project will be open. "The borough president was very sensitive to charges of exclusion. Of all people in the world he is not going to let that happen. The people of Throggs Neck Houses will have their concerns addressed and have access to the park just as any other person who wants to use it will."

Additional environmental concerns have surfaced as construction has proceeded. To cover the landfill and shape the contours of the golf course, the developer is trucking in 1 million cubic yards of construction and demolition debris. Lowe compares the trash layer underneath to a sponge filled with methane gas produced by decomposing garbage. She says the heavy fill is squeezing the methane out of the sponge toward the residential areas. In February, monitoring of test wells showed that methane levels were too high, and the developer was required to build a five-block-long gravel-filled trench to vent the gas before it accumulates underground at explosive levels. The trench is right next to a community park used by residents of the housing project. "They have not tested what is coming out of that venting trench," Lowe said.

There have also been reports that the developer is using possibly contaminated fill. The state permit granted to the developer allows only certain types of construction and demolition debris. Residents have reported finding asphalt grindings, which are not allowed, and in fact, the developer has applied for a waiver to allow the use of asphalt.

Tom Kunkel, Special Assistant at the Region 2 office of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the agency has not yet dealt with the developer's request to allow asphalt. He said, "The developer has been following the permit, has been very agreeable so far with the trench and with monitoring the issues. We have been in constant contact with them since the beginning of the permit."

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

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