Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Final Design for Brooklyn Waterfront Park. Also: Funding for Urban Parks

Less than a year ago, neighborhood opposition killed a proposal for a massive hotel and development along the DUMBO shoreline in Brooklyn. Since then, with amazing swiftness, a realistic plan for the entire downtown Brooklyn shoreline has been created, and has won the backing of most of the area's civic organizations and elected officials. In a borough that has the least amount of parkland per capita in New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge Park would be one of first of a new generation of parks, along with the Hudson River Park, to reclaim the scenic and recreational assets of the waterfront.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation presented the final design to the public in July. For years, Brooklyn community groups have been advocating for a waterfront park. Last September, the Port Authority (which owns the piers along the waterfront) agreed to give the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation a year to come up with a plan for the park. New York State provided funding for the planning process. Part of the agreement was that the park must generate enough income to pay for maintaining itself.

The design for the park evolved through a series of public workshops attended by some 4,000 people over the past year.

The proposed park would occupy a long, very narrow site running from the Manhattan Bridge to Atlantic Avenue, transforming an industrial matrix of piers, warehouses, and parking lots into a landscaped space with spectacular views of the harbor and the Manhattan skyline. The plan includes numerous recreational amenities, such as playgrounds, a swimming pool, an ice-skating rink, and an outdoor amphitheater, as well as commercial projects like a hotel and a banquet facility. It also calls for restoring the nine-acre Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park and its historic warehouses.

The plan has wide support in the community. Although some people are unhappy with the commercial features, most seem to have made peace with the assumption that the park must produce income for its continued upkeep. A group of Brooklyn Heights residents oppose the plan, however, largely because of a predicted increase in foot traffic down Joralemon Street, which would be the main route to the park from the subway. The group, Waterfront Development Watch, recently sent petitions and letters, its analysis of the proposed park and an alternative plan to the Governor and Mayor.

By the end of the summer, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation will submit its master plan to the State and the Port Authority, which must approve it and agree to provide funding for construction, estimated at $150 million. (The City has already pledged $64 million over four years for the project.) A lead agency will be designated to oversee the park's completion. Then begins the extensive public environmental and land use review, ultimately leading to a more detailed design.

Even before the review process, the City and State could make some of the changes set forth in the master plan. The City has committed $7 million in this year's capital budget to improvements to its property in the area. The State has begun repair work in Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park.

Anne Sounds Off: Landmark Law for Land Conservation

You probably won't read about it in the papers, which have largely overlooked the progress this summer of a bill that is of major importance for urban parks, as well as land and wildlife conservation nationwide. The legislation, called the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), would provide nearly $3 billion a year from offshore oil and gas royalties to preserve open space, protect wildlife, restore coastlines, and help develop urban parks and recreation areas.

Among other things, the legislation would dedicate $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This fund was supposed to receive that amount from offshore oil receipts, but has been shortchanged since it was established in 1965. Half of the money is currently divided among the states for state and local parks, recreation, and natural resource protection. The new legislation would allocate funding to other urban park, recreation, and forestry programs as well.

The House passed its version of the legislation, 315-102, in May. In late July, The Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee approved a carefully crafted bill that resulted from intensive negotiations between Senators Frank Murkowski (R-AK) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who each had their own version of the bill. The full Senate is expected to consider the bill after the August recess. Opposition in the Senate comes from a small group of western senators concerned about property rights issues, who may try to block the bill's passage.

Some environmental groups, while supporting the bill, want to make sure that the final legislation doesn't allow funds meant for coastal restoration to be used for environmentally damaging projects like roads and port facilities. They also want to eliminate a provision that offers incentives for new offshore oil and gas drilling in Alaska.

Conservationists have been trying for decades to secure a permanent funding source for federal land and wildlife conservation programs. With the strong support of the Administration and key legislators, supporters feel this year offers the best shot ever for this legislation. "This is clearly the moment," said Alan Front, senior vice president of the Trust for Public Land. New York's senators should press for a Senate floor vote and support the passage of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act.

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.


In the News: The War on Beetles

The Asian long-horned beetle has struck again, this time infesting trees along Luther Gulick Playground near the Manhattan approach to the Williamsburg Bridge. The trees were chopped down, chipped and burned to kill the insect and its eggs, the only way to stop the spread of the insect, which has no natural predators in the United States.

The tree-killing beetle made its first attack in New York in 1996, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The Parks Department believes that it stowed away in the wood of crates brought from China to the Greenpoint docks. Since then, nearly 3,000 trees in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan have had to be destroyed to stop its spread. Last year, the beetles were discovered in Ruppert Park in the Upper East Side, too close for comfort to Central Park.

"The beetles pose an enormous long-term danger to the city's forests and to trees all along the Northeast," Parks Commissioner Henry Stern was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "All of humanity is together in fighting this. This is biological warfare and we are on the side of the trees."

The Parks department has stepped up tree inspections in special zones around areas where the beetle has been found, and is asking people to report sightings of the insect or the characteristic pencil-sized holes it bores in upper tree trunks. In April, the department announced a $10 million federal, state, and city effort to battle the beetle, with funding for inspection and the destruction and replacement of infested trees with seedlings.

Adult beetles are about one and a quarter inches long, shiny black with white spots, and have long black-and-white striped antennae. They chew out depressions in the bark higher up in the trees to lay their eggs. The larvae bore into the tree to feed, coming back through the trunk when they reach maturity, leaving the telltale holes. Other incriminating evidence is a pile of sawdust at the base of a tree or at the intersection of a branch and the trunk. See the Asian long-horned beetle alert. To report any sign of the beetle, call the Parks department at 1-800-201-PARK.

Anne Sounds Off:

A recent article in the Albany Times-Union documented the depressing result of funding cutbacks for park maintenance in a number of upstate cities. Albany, for example, has slightly more than half the park workers it had two decades ago, with predictable deterioration of parks, particularly small ones. When budgets are tight, Schenectady's Mayor said, "the parks are the first to get whacked."

Sound familiar? New York City just approved another budget that continues an inadequate level of spending on park maintenance. Though this year's funding is $3 million higher than last year, the extra money goes to salary increases for existing staff and 31 new seasonal workers, not to increasing much-needed skilled maintenance staff, like gardeners, tree pruners, and plumbers. In fact, the budget includes a hiring freeze that aims to cut 100 fulltime park workers through attrition. The Parks department has been supplementing its maintenance staff with welfare workers, and private fundraising and volunteers are helping to maintain some parks. But many parks, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, are in terrible shape. Less than one-half of one percent of the City budget goes to the Parks department operating budget. It's time for our elected officials to stop thinking of parks as frills and realize that investing in open space and recreation pays off„in higher real estate values, crime reduction, improved air quality, and the kind of city where people and businesses want to locate.

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.

In the News: Roundup

Final Stages of Brooklyn Bridge Park The final master plan for the Brooklyn Bridge Park will be presented in mid-June. Earlier in the spring, after a six-month process that included numerous public workshops, the park planners presented the draft design for the 1.3-mile-long waterfront park. The reaction was reported to be positive from the Port Authority, which owns the piers where much of the park would be built. Some Brooklyn Heights residents remain concerned about an increase in pedestrian traffic on Joralemon Street, a residential street that would be the only access route to the park from Brooklyn Heights; park planners have met with the residents, but the issue has not been fully resolved. Meanwhile, park advocates have been working to build support for the park as well as to get more people down to the waterfront even before it is built.

Litterers Beware! The Parks Department launched an anti-littering campaign in May, hoping to change our wayward ways with trash. New Yorkers are champion litterers, as anyone who has visited the parks on a summer Monday morning knows. The Parks department says it picks up nearly 1,300 cubic yards of litter every day, a fact that it will dramatize with cubic-yard-sized plexiglas boxes (a new form of art installation?) The campaign is stressing public education, including children's anti-littering contests and clean-up projects. The department is posting signs in five languages warning of $100 fines for littering. Large groups that are required to hold permits will have their permits revoked if they leave a mess, as well as forfeit their clean-up bonds. It is not clear, however, whether there will be additional enforcement. On Staten Island, Borough President Guy Molinari launched his own anti-litter initiative two weeks earlier, but with more teeth: the assignment of ten specially designed sanitation cruisers as well as ticketing by the police.

Parade Grounds' New Duds The construction of a new football field will kick off the restoration of the dismal playing fields in Brooklyn's Parade Grounds. Renovation plans also include new soccer, softball, baseball, and multi-purpose fields, basketball courts, a concession stand and a new playground. Drainage problems will be addressed and several fields will be covered with a new low-maintenance artificial turf. It is a happy ending to a controversy that erupted when the City decided to build a temporary minor-league stadium in the park. Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden blocked the plan, refusing a compromise in which the City would have paid for fixing up the entire Parade Grounds. Now Golden has come through with $10 million that will make the complete restoration possible.

Anne Sounds Off:

Anyone who cares about parks and open space and outdoor recreation should be drumming up support for a landmark piece of legislation now working its way through Congress. In May the House voted to dedicate, for the first time, nearly $3 billion a year in offshore oil revenue to a variety of park, wildlife and recreational needs, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The receipts would go into a trust and could not be diverted elsewhere. The measure, called the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support, despite opposition from the House Republican leadership.

Beginning in 1964, when the LWCF was established, royalties from offshore oil and gas leases were supposed to go to federal land acquisition and matching grants to states for local parks and recreation. A fund called the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program (UPARR) was later set up to give matching grants for recreation projects in the inner cities. But in reality, oil receipts have been included in the general federal revenue that gets divvied up during the annual appropriations process, and actual funding for parks and recreation has never been close to what was authorized. Even so, many significant open space acquisitions and recreational projects in the New York were made possible by LWCF money -- a listing is available on the web site of Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation.

Looking at LWCF-funded projects in the five boroughs over the past thirty-five years, there is a noticeable pattern: many projects funded in the late 60s through the 70s, fewer in the 80s, virtually nothing in the 90s. For four years in the late 90s, Congress appropriated zero dollars state in matching grants.

If CARA becomes law, federal spending for conservation could not be held hostage to politics during the budget process. Every year the LWCF would automatically get $900 million, with half going to the states. Of this, $102 million would go to New York State, including $28 million for land acquisition. UPARR would receive $125 million annually.

CARA has broad public support, but could face opposition in the Senate, particularly from a small but vocal group of property-rights advocates. The bill is scheduled to be marked up in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in mid-June. With only about 40 working days left in this session of Congress, early consideration by the full Senate is important if the legislation is to be finalized this year.

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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