Gotham Gazette

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Protecting community gardens

At an Earth Day event on the steps of City Hall last week, Council members Ken Fisher and Adolfo Carrion announced new legislation to protect community gardens. City Council members and dozens of community gardeners gathered at City Hall (after being disarmed of the wooden "stems" of their fake flowers) to laud the legislation, which would create for the first time a City policy governing community gardens.

The legislation establishes a moratorium on developing community garden lots, which is legally necessary before the other provisions of the new law can be enforced. It designates the community gardens as an existing use of City property rather than as "vacant lots," and no longer allows the City to develop community gardens without a thorough review process, including an EIS, and public input. It also provides the opportunity to preserve existing gardens through a transfer to the Parks Department or a land trust. "This is very reasonable legislation," said Dave Lutz of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition. "It is not asking for all the gardens to be saved. It is asking for a rational planning process to be put into place to take into account more than one need."

The gardens were built on vacant lots leased from the City with the understanding that it could reclaim them at any time. Over the last twenty years, they have become part of fabric of their communities, and sometimes the catalyst for the revival of neighborhoods. In 1998, the City transferred the gardens from the Parks Department to the Department of Housing and Preservation, and canceled their leases. Last year, as more than 100 gardens were about to be auctioned off by the City, the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project stepped in to purchase them. Now more garden lots are slated for housing, and several have already been razed. The gardens have become a victim of their own success, improving their neighborhoods to the point that developers find them attractive.

For the time being, a moratorium on developing community gardens is in place, the result of a lawsuit filed by New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer. There is also community garden preservation legislation before the State Senate, but none in the Assembly. State legislators are not expected to act until the City Council does.

Anne Sounds Off:

The economy is good and tax revenues are up, but the Mayor's proposed budget for FY2001 further pares down operating funds for the Department of Parks and Recreation. The executive budget reduces the Parks operating budget by $10.7 million from what is projected to be spent this fiscal year. It eliminates 102 seasonal playground and maintenance workers, projects a reduction of 97 full-time staff members through attrition (replacing half with part-time workers), and cuts other maintenance expenditures. Though a number of other departments have funding increases, once again Parks gets just crumbs from the budget pie, about four-tenths of a percent.

During the fiscal crisis in 1992, the City greatly reduced its workforce in many areas, including Parks. Staffing for other departments, like Police, Fire, and Sanitation, has since been restored, but the number of Parks employees has actually declined. At a time when the City has added almost 2,000 acres to the Parks system, it provides less money for maintaining the green and recreational space it manages, which amounts to 13% of the City's acreage.

Parks Commissioner Henry Stern has kept the parks functioning by using thousands of welfare workers and paying for repairs (often made necessary by the lack of routine maintenance) through the creative use of the capital budget, which is borrowed money. The department has focused on keeping up the smaller and more heavily used parks; the larger parks are in worse shape, except Central and Prospect Park and a few others where private funds and capital spending have picked up the slack. You have to wonder what will happen to our parks during the next fiscal crisis.

Although the welfare workers clean the parks of litter and graffiti, there are not enough skilled Parks employees to keep up with tasks like tree pruning, gardening, and electrical and plumbing repair. In December 1999, the Parks Council surveyed hundreds of park volunteers and community groups about the services and features most in need of attention. Among the items that were ranked highest were gardening and tree pruning.

While the mayor has tackled a number of "quality-of-life" issues during his tenure, he has given low priority to maintaining the open spaces that make the City a better place to live and visit. It is interesting that the Mayor is proposing to increase maintenance staff next year for just two parks„and one is the newly restored City Hall Park. As Mark Caserta, Director of Public Policy at the Parks Council, said, "The Mayor realizes he needs maintenance workers for 'his' park. His park is built with $20 million of borrowed money, and he realizes that he needs to take care of it. That's what the rest of the City needs, too."

The City Council should at very least restore the 102 seasonal workers--positions the Council originally created, two for each district. Beyond that, let's look toward increasing the Parks operating budget to truly meet maintenance needs, and begin to dismantle the capital spending house of cards.

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: Finally! The Brooklyn Bridge Park plan

The draft master plan to remake the downtown Brooklyn waterfront into a park will be unveiled for public comment April 30 and May 1. The plan was created through a series of public workshops held this past fall and winter. Community residents and businesses, elected officials, and neighborhood groups met with park planners to discuss what they did and did not want in the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park.

"This is the only planning process we know of where the community has been involved on this scale from the beginning," said Lee Silberstein, the spokesman for the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPDC), the non-profit local development corporation charged with planning the park.

For much of the last two decades, Brooklyn community groups and elected officials have been building support for a grand waterfront park with views of the harbor, bridges, and the Manhattan skyline. In 1998, the state funded the BBPDC to develop a plan for the park. The proposed parkland runs 1.3 miles along the waterfront, from Atlantic Avenue to the Manhattan Bridge. It includes piers owned by the Port Authority, City parking lots, Civil War-era warehouses, and the Empire Fulton Ferry State Park.

Although there were the inevitable disagreements (which will certainly continue when the draft plan is released), in the public workshops a consensus emerged to create the park in three sections, each with a different type of use. Piers 2, 3, and 4, as well as the state park between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, are designated the "green heart" of the park, for open space and outdoor recreation. A "node of activity," including an indoor recreational center and possible housing, is envisioned at the Atlantic Avenue gateway to the park -- pier 5 and the land next to pier 6. Pier 1 and the adjacent land would have a concentration of commercial uses - including a proposed hotel and conference center - that are supposed to generate the $3 to $5 million needed to maintain the park. A center of arts and cultural activities is also planned for Pier 1 and the nearby historic warehouses.

In the last set of workshops held in late February, the design team presented drawings and models of several alternatives. Throughout the process, the most contentious issues were how to provide access to the park without bringing too much car and pedestrian traffic to any one neighborhood, and the nature of the development proposed for the park. The community will have a chance to review the draft master plan at the workshops on April 30 and May 1.

Waterfront Shorts

Empire Fulton Ferry State Park - Community Board 2 recently approved a new design for repairing the bulkhead at Empire Fulton Ferry State Park. Community members and the groups working on the Brooklyn Bridge Park objected to the original design, and collaborated with the state to develop a more natural, landscaped solution. At the same meeting, the State presented a proposal for creating a grassy marsh in a cove north of the bulkhead. The marsh plan will be addressed in the overall Brooklyn Bridge Park planning process.

Port Authority Piers - The Port Authority took an important step that brings the Brooklyn Bridge Park closer to reality. On February 10, the Port Authority signed an agreement to sell piers 1-5 to the BBPDC as public parkland. It also agreed to continue a $5 million project to repair the piers. At the same time, the state announced it was committing more than $1 million for the development and upkeep of Brooklyn waterfront parks, with $500,000 earmarked for the Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Anne Sounds Off:

People don't usually mention New York City and wildlife in the same breath unless they're thinking: rats and pigeons. Of course, the City does have wildlife, even rare species like the peregrine falcon that nests in Manhattan's concrete canyons. Wild plants and birds, fish, and other animals find habitats in our parks, in wetlands, and in the harbor.

One way to help keep wildlife in the City is make a contribution on the New York State income tax form to Return a Gift to Wildlife. (If you're getting a refund, it's almost painless. And even $5 contributions add up.) Last year's tax check-off gave more than $600,000 to the state Department of Environmental Conservation's fish and wildlife program. This money helped fund a number of statewide programs, including the New York Natural Heritage Program, which tracks the location of rare and endangered wildlife and ecological communities; a revised Atlas of Breeding Birds, which will determine changes in breeding bird distribution since the landmark study of the 1980s; and the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program, which responds to strandings on the shores of Long Island and in New York City's harbor.

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: Field of Dreams in Staten Island?

A Staten Island conservation group, Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, is fighting a City plan to create a complex of recreational fields in Bloomingdale Park. Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari and City Councilman Stephen Fiala originated the project to build three baseball and two soccer fields; six tennis and six basketball courts; as well as a parking lot and access road. The complex is slated for the 41-acre eastern section of the South Shore park, a forested, hilly natural area containing streams and wetlands.

The project addresses a "real shortage of ballparks for kids 3 a sore need," said Jennifer Nelson, Director of Public Information for the borough president. "The South Shore has been a growing area, with a lot of young families." With this plan, Nelson said, the fields would be in a natural setting, giving children an appreciation for the natural world.

The Parks Department hired the design and engineering firm Vollmer Associates to study the feasibility of the plan, comparing Bloomingdale Park with three other potential city- or state-owned sites in the area. The Vollmer report, issued in July, concluded that Bloomingdale Park was the least suitable, meeting only 3 of 12 criteria, while the other three sites met at least 11. Compared to what is known as the Pleasant Plains or Station Avenue site, where a similar ballfield complex was originally proposed, Bloomingdale Park would cost four times as much. The higher costs were associated with site clearing, earthmoving, and drainage, as well as environmental mitigation.

Parks Commissioner Henry Stern told Mayor Giuliani on a visit to the park last year that the department opposed building the complex there. "We feel at Parks that fields wouldn't work because of the slopes and wetlands in the park," he said. A week later the Mayor announced his support for the plan. The Parks Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Another group opposing the plan is New York City Audubon. "Our concern is that this is a misuse of parkland and natural resources," said Sean Andrews, the group's president. "They are proceeding with the project without consideration of other options." He added, "There are recreational needs, but they need to be planned in a way that doesn't destroy a legacy of great open space. This sets a dangerous precedent for other parks and natural areas around the city."

The outcome of this David-vs.-Goliath battle may depend on the definition of a wetland. State and federal agencies vary greatly in their criteria, which allows groups to interpret the law according to their interests. A consultant for the borough president found only 2.5 acres of wetlands in the area in question. A 1988 NYC Department of Environmental Protection Watershed Drainage Plan, however, identified 18 acres as freshwater wetlands. Protectors of Pine Oak Woods contends that there are 21 acres.

In January, the State Department of Environmental Conservation ruled that the park contains no state-regulated wetlands. Protectors has filed an appeal of the DEC decision to the State Freshwater Wetlands Appeals Board. The group claims that the DEC disregards state law -- which is broader in scope and definition than federal wetlands law - when preparing wetlands maps. The group also claims that the DEC decision is based on incomplete evidence, and objects to way the site was mapped: DEC staff visited the site just once, accompanied by only a representative for the borough president.

Meanwhile, the City is moving ahead with its plans. A public hearing on the draft Environmental Impact Statement was held on February 28, and the final EIS is due by the end of the year, with construction to begin soon after.

Anne Sounds Off:

New Yorkers might be surprised to learn that the New York/New Jersey harbor, degraded by centuries of urbanization, has been chosen by the U.S. Department of the Interior as one of eight "major areas of focus" in the President's Land Legacy Initiative, joining the ranks of such national treasures as the Everglades. To the state and local agencies and conservation groups working to preserve open space in the harbor, however, it's about time. Urban areas are largely neglected when the federal government allocates money for open space protection.

In recent years, our harbor has been undergoing an ecological revival. In the February 20 New York Times City section, scientist John Waldmanreveals some of the surprising, forgotten spots where fish thrive and herons nest. Waldman writes, "...many New Yorkers take a dim view of their watery backyard. They believe it to be a dank and dangerous cesspool featuring drifting corpses and gasping flounder..." But, he writes, "New York Harbor is no longer uninviting...I am among those privy to the signs that the harbor is coming back, and especially to its recent signals: reappearances of birds, shellfish, turtles, dolphins, and other creatures long absent or depressed."

The key to the continued reemergence of wildlife is the existence of fragments of salt marsh and other wetlands in the harbor watershed -- just a fraction of the original habitat, but enough to support colonies of birds and nurture fish populations. These wetlands also provide multiple economic benefits: They reduce the amount of sediment flowing into the harbor (which clogs shipping channels), and filter out pollutants. "Wetlands absorb flood flows better than any technology known to man," said Mark Matsil, director of the City parks department's Natural Resources Group, one of the agencies involved in the effort to preserve harbor wetlands. Matsil noted that the most flood-prone areas of the city were built on former wetlands.

For next year's budget, the Interior Department is requesting substantial funds for the New York/New Jersey harbor initiative. The money would go to land acquisition as well as natural resource management, restoration, historic preservation, education, and recreation. Much of the money would be provided as matching grants for the two states. The local groups and agencies have compiled a list of key wetlands for acquisition. We should be asking our elected representatives to make sure that the final budget passed next fall ends up providing significant funds for New York harbor -- and that the states come up with matching grants. 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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