Volume 76, Number 41 | March 7 - 13, 2007

Talking Point

Villager photo by Esther Martin

A view of East River Park below Houston St., looking toward the Williamsburg Bridge. The park’s riverfront promenade is being rebuilt.

Low funds, spaces at risk: It’s no walk in the park

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

There are two ways to look at the situation in our local parks and playgrounds. Compared to 13 years ago, at the beginning of Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty, our parks and playgrounds are in far, far better shape. A majority have undergone major renovation, and several more are slated for renovation in the next year or two. This is in large part due to the funding efforts of Tom Duane, when he was on the City Council, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Alan Gerson.

We have seen major new park space added as a result of the construction of Hudson River Park, including the water playground at Pier 51 (at Horatio St.) and the green spaces at Pier 46 (Charles St.) and Pier 45 (Christopher St.). We have seen ball fields created first on top of Pier 40 and then in the Pier 40 courtyard, adding over 225,000 square feet of much-needed recreational space for thousands of children and teenagers, and even adults. J. J. Walker Park, which many remember as either a dusty or muddy clay pit, has been covered in FieldTurf, an artificial-grass surface.

The next few years will see more. Petrosino Park, on Lafayette St., at a cost of $1.25 million will be expanded and renovated, creating a major new amenity for east Soho (thanks to Alan Gerson and Friends of Petrosino Park). Once work is completed at several Downtown sites on water shafts connecting to the new city water tunnel, Seravalli Playground (at Horatio and Hudson Sts.) will be renovated, and new park space will be added at Hudson and Clarkson Sts. and Grand and Lafayette Sts. Seravalli could begin this year; the other two need to be funded.

Sometime in the next two years, Minetta Playground (on Sixth Ave. between Minetta Lane and W. Third St.) will receive capital funds for renovation, while the bathrooms at Vesuvio Playground (at Thompson St.) and Bleecker Playground will be redone and made handicap accessible. Renovations should be completed this year at Father Demo Square (at Sixth Ave. and Carmine St.) and on the pool at Vesuvio Playground. And East River Park, one of the most underutilized gems in the park system, should see its major renovation completed this year.

However, even with all of this activity, here is where our community ranks in terms of park space per resident out of the 51 City Council districts in New York City (the higher the number the lower the amount of park space):

• District 3 (Quinn — Greenwich Village/Hudson Square/Chelsea) 46th
• District 2 (Mendez — East Village/Lower East Side/Gramercy/Kips Bay) 38th
• District 1 (Gerson — Lower Manhattan/Soho/Noho/Washington Square) 36th
Not great when you consider that this includes Washington Square Park, Tompkins Square Park, Hudson River Park, East River Park and Battery Park. Outside of those large parks, our community has very little other than postage stamp-size parks into which we squeeze.

This fact emphasizes the importance of these parks to the lifeblood of our community — young and old.

The problems we face are twofold. First, the city continues to underfund park and playground maintenance. In 1980, the Parks Department had 4,643 employees doing maintenance. In 2004, it had 1,353. That number continues to drop. New York City spends $25 per resident per year on park maintenance. Compare that with Chicago, which spends $108 per resident. Showcase parks like Bryant Park get the lion’s share of the funding: Thanks to contributions from the Bryant Park Restoration Corp., a business improvement district, Bryant Park gets $324,000 per acre; citywide, parks get $5,142 per acre on average. Manhattan has 204 playgrounds, but only 45 playground associates. This means two things: park maintenance is poor, and our parks and playgrounds are under-attended. Poor maintenance means that capital expenditures have a shorter lifespan. In heavily used parks, things break and get worn out, plumbing needs repair, trees and bushes die or need pruning. Only one park in the Village other than Washington Square and Tompkins Square has full-time attendants — Bleecker Playground. Were it not for the efforts of community groups, our parks and playgrounds would rapidly slip into disrepair.

Second is a problem park advocates call “park alienation.” What is given with one hand is taken away with the other:

• We are supposed to get a park on the Gansevoort Peninsula — 5 acres worth. It took legislation, litigation and a court-negotiated consent decree to get the Sanitation trucks and the salt pile off the peninsula by 2012 — nine years later than first envisioned. Before the ink even dried on the consent decree, the mayor and the City Council enacted a Solid Waste Management Plan that places a waste transfer facility on Gansevoort. Although the Hudson River Park Act prohibits such a facility, the mayor has begun lobbying Albany for a change in the law. The Coalition to Protect Our Parks, initiated by Friends of Hudson River Park, which includes Community Boards 1, 2 and 4, Senator Tom Duane, Assemblymembers Richard Gottfried and Deborah Glick and Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, is lobbying hard to prevent such a change.

• Sanitation, in order to leave Gansevoort, needs a new location to park its trucks. It has come up with a plan to build a massive garage at Spring and Washington Sts., a plan that has met with broad community opposition. The Department of Sanitation, under the consent decree intended to get them off of Gansevoort, only needs to make its “best efforts” to relocate. Is Sanitation setting up a situation where those best efforts result in failure?

• The Washington Square Park renovation is stuck. The park is in a sad state of disrepair and gets sadder. Unfortunately, the Parks Department has steadfastly stuck to a renovation plan that makes major changes to the flow and design of one of the world’s most successful parks. Many view the plan, with its fence and reduction in non-grass gathering spaces, as a step in the direction of making a people’s park into something more like Gramercy Park — a beautiful but sterile venue. An injunction and new litigation over the Parks Department’s environmental review process could delay the project for many more years. Maybe one day the Parks Department will make the changes that will move things forward.

• Pier 40, at the end of W. Houston St., is at a crossroads. Thanks to the efforts of youth recreation advocates, led by Tobi Bergman, Pier 40 has become one of the major, if not the major, public recreational facilities south of Central Park. Sometime this year, the Hudson River Park Trust will choose between two proposals for the future: one to totally transform Pier 40 into even more of a public recreation center, with a high school, a college campus and community parking, and a second that would turn Pier 40 into a “destination,” sharing a Cirque du Soliel performance space, an event pavilion, a music hall, a “Winter Garden” and a number of restaurants and retail stores, with a 260,000-square-foot playing field. The contrast between the two proposals is sharp, and the eventual choice will say a lot about the future of both Hudson River Park and the surrounding community.

The solution to the public-space issues we face as a community lies in the hands of residents. The advances we have made over the last 15 years are the result of public pressure — parents and community residents demanding more. Only continued public pressure will assure that park funding and park development meet the needs of our community and build on the gains we have made since the early 1990s.

Schwartz is chairperson, Community Board 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee and the Hudson River Park Advisory Council. He is also a union lawyer representing D.C. 37 workers for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, including maintenance, truck drivers and Park Enforcement Patrol officers.

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