Planting an Idea

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The new chain-link fences, Dumpsters and construction staging crowding its streets mark Harlem as a neighborhood in rapid development. But Paul Berizzi is inspired only to frustration. He walks briskly down Lenox Avenue jabbing his finger at the numerous vacant lots that remain–and he’s seeing green. “It’s Sunday, you decide to go for a picnic,” he shakes his head. “You don’t want to go to a parking lot!”

Berizzi stops in front of one of the few patches of nature in the neighborhood, the J.D. Wilson Community Garden on West 122nd Street. A piece of it, owned by a private developer, has already been bulldozed and surrounded by fencing. Berizzi wants to make sure the rest of it doesn’t follow, so kids from the neighborhood can continue to attend a nature program in the garden.

Everywhere he looks, Berizzi sees wasted potential–and believes that for the right price, it can be harnessed. He’s asking New York State to help him purchase vacant land for small neighborhood parks, using the money that it usually spends on Adirondacks woodlands and Hudson River vistas.

New York City has an average of 3.82 acres of city parkland per thousand residents, woefully less than other high-density cities. Boston has 4.8 acres; Philadelphia, 7. Parkland is even more limited in many low-income neighborhoods. In the Bronx, Hunts Point has just 0.55 acres per thousand residents. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, it’s 0.2 acres. Central Harlem is nestled between Central, Morningside and Mount Morris parks, but the neighborhood has just 1.2 acres per thousand residents.

Working with community groups in each of those three neighborhoods, Berizzi’s Environmental Action Coalition is proposing a remedy: a network of 10 small parks, from a puny 25-by-100 foot lot on Gilbert Place in the Bronx to the 0.34-acre Wilson garden. He figures he’ll need $300,000 in state funding to buy the land.

Getting the money wouldn’t just be a coup for the project, dubbed Greening Gray Neighborhoods. It would also mark a significant change of course for the state. Since 1996, the state, using funds from the Environmental Bond Act and the Environmental Protection Fund, has spent more than $300 million on open space acquisition. But little of that money has gone to New York City. The only borough to see serious state money to buy and protect open space is Staten Island, where recent state purchases include the St. Francis Woodlands, Old Place Creek, Arden Heights Woods and the 125-acre Mount Loretto Forest. Another $9.3 million will buy the Eastern District Terminal in Brooklyn.

Though the city Parks Department has acquired more than 1,800 acres of land in the last six years, including important new areas on the Bronx River, it has been reluctant to develop small plots of land, which are not as cost-effective to maintain. That leaves the city far from its own planning department’s recommendation that all city residents have open spaces within a quarter mile of their homes.

The disparity in the state spending for open space is “an issue which at its heart is about environmental racism,” says Leslie Lowe, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. Lowe’s group has hooked Berizzi up with the community organizations cosponsoring the proposed new parks, including the Point Community Development Corporation and Harlem’s Project Harmony.

Berizzi says that the new Hudson River and Brooklyn Bridge parks–which are receiving $185 million in state funds–won’t come close to filling the needs of neighborhoods far away. “Our vision,” he says, “is that just because you cannot create a Central Park or a Bryant Park doesn’t mean that every neighborhood cannot have its own backyard with trees, a jungle gym or whatever residents want.”

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New York is no stranger to small neighborhood parks. In the late 1960s, a concern that lack of open space was a plague on inner city neighborhoods prompted government agencies and nonprofit groups to build “vest pocket” parks in space-starved areas. But the experiment failed, because most of the parks not owned by the city succumbed to development pressures.

Small parks, say their boosters, provide benefits that belie their size. In Hunts Point, one of the proposed parks would sit directly across from the Pio Mendez Senior Residence and provide residents the only green space within easy reach. In Bushwick, where the majority of residents are children, the sites could provide badly needed playgrounds. Most important, state purchase of vacant lots would help fill the hole left by the loss in recent years of about 100 community gardens, most of them to housing development.

Berizzi, who until the mid 1990s was chief of environmental services for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, is the only full-time employee of the Environmental Action Coalition, which was founded to organize the city’s first Earth Day in 1970. But he has larger power through his membership on New York City’s Regional Open Space Advisory Committee, which recommends land preservation projects to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Making the committee’s list is the first step toward getting Bond Act or Environmental Protection Fund money to buy parkland in New York City. But until the committee invited West Harlem Environmental Action and the Bronx Council on Environmental Quality to join last year, there were no members from community-based organizations. Its members, representing city and state agencies and established nature and preservation groups, focused on parks improvement projects and protecting the city’s few remaining acres of wilderness.

The loss of community gardens has now made open space in underserved urban neighborhoods a priority for the advisory committee, says Anthony Emmerich, supervising forester for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: “People on the committee began to worry that these communities were going to lose what green space they had.” In this year’s budget request to the state, the committee submitted a special list of projects proposed for neighborhoods where incomes and the ratio of parkland to people are both below the city average, and it has asked the state to give them particular consideration.

The list is just the first stop on the way to Governor Pataki’s desk. Observers familiar with the environmental funding process say that projects live or die by support from legislators. Berizzi has not yet approached any for support, but he does have an ally in State Assemblymember Richard Brodsky, chair of the Committee on Environmental Conservation, whose legislation to add $50 million to the Environmental Protection Fund includes $10 million designated for open space acquisition in underserved urban communities.

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If Greening Gray Neighborhoods gets state funding, snagging privately owned land in a hot real estate market presents particular difficulties. The city’s current tax code encourages speculation on vacant lots, says Jocelyne Chait, an urban planner and coauthor of a study for the Design Trust for Public Space on challenges the South Bronx has faced in preserving open space amid the development boom. She points out that taxes on vacant land are very low, only 8 percent of its assessed value. And it doesn’t take much to spark speculation fever. Once land-owners learn the state is bankrolling a purchase, “I would expect that they would raise prices considerably,” says Chait.

Berizzi won’t have much wiggle room. He proposes offering 150 percent of the city tax assessor’s estimated market value of a property–the same formula the Parks Department uses when it makes offers to buy private land, but one that usually greatly underestimates a property’s actual value.

On top of that, Berizzi and his partners will have to figure out how to plant and maintain the parks. Berizzi estimates that it will ultimately cost $2 to $3 million to develop the 10 parcels on his list into tot lots and gardens. He intends to use the state money as a magnet for raising private funding, much as the city’s new waterfront parks plan to do, and means to go back to the Environmental Protection Fund for more money over time. Finally, he’s counting on community group stewardship to take care of lighter chores, such as picking up trash and gardening.

But the project’s supporters say that Greening Gray Neighborhoods will need significant government investment beyond the initial purchase of the properties. “Community involvement does not a park system make,” says Cecil Corbin-Mark, program director of West Harlem Environmental Action. Corbin-Mark says that there has to be some accountability and an infrastructure in place, in case sponsoring community groups fail to maintain the parks.

Even well-heeled nonprofits have encountered difficulty putting all these pieces together. The Parks Council has developed six parks out of vacant lots, and succeeded in transferring them to the city Parks Department. In 1994, for example, it helped the East New York Urban Youth Corps and students from P.S. 174 build the East New York Success Garden on Livonia Avenue. Today, the park boasts a basketball court, a large pond and bog, a stage for performances and events, a plaza, a picnic area and planting beds.

But despite its successes, the Parks Council is getting out of the development business. “We’re trying to get the city to spend more money on maintenance and park development,” says Mark Caserta, director of public policy for the Parks Council. “We found it was just too hard to raise the private dollars.”

While he supports the idea behind Greening Gray Neighborhoods, Michael Klein, deputy director of the Parks Council, says it begs the question of why government isn’t doing more for neighborhoods. “Why should people who tend to live in poorer communities and are underserved have the responsibility of being the stewards, when most people who live in the city’s affluent communities don’t have to do it?” asks Klein. “We have forgotten how to ask for equal care from the government.”

Alex Ulam is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.