Hopes for Harlem River Park in the NW Bronx Tied Up in Red Tape

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A view of the Harlem River waterfront where Regatta Park is supposed to be created. (Adi Talwar)

Editor's note and update: This story appears in the latest edition of the Norwood News, which hits streets today. The update is that Parks Department spokesperson Jesslyn Moser told me today that the agency is, in fact, going to go ahead with a scoping for Regatta Park. Previously, Moser had said a decision had not been made on whether to hold a scoping. The decision to hold a scoping is news because Councilman Fernando Cabrera had requested a scoping in December, but Parks has not responded. Perhaps our inquiry spurred them into action. Also, just to be clear, the creation of Regatta Park is called for in the city's new comprehensive waterfront plan, but there is no money allocated for the project in the three-year “action” plan.

By Alex Kratz

Regatta Park does not exist. It is an idea. A collective vision — shared by Harlem River enthusiasts, Bronx water access advocates, a community board and a local politician — to see a public, usable green space on the Harlem River waterfront in the northwest Bronx.

Ozzie Brown can see what Regatta Park is now from his Fordham Hill apartment, which looks down at the Harlem River waterfront, just north of the historic University Heights Bridge. “It’s a dump,” he says of the area, which is also known as Fordham Landing.

The creation of Regatta Park is called for in the city’s recently released comprehensive waterfront plan and is a vital cog in advocates’ dream of creating a continuous greenway that would travel along the Harlem and Hudson rivers from Westchester County to the south Bronx.

But the city money once allocated for Regatta Park has all but evaporated, forcing residents like Brown and other park advocates to keep hope and the vision of waterfront access alive.

Last year, City Councilman Fernando Cabrera gave Community Board 7 and Brown, a board member, $15,000 to work on redeveloping the Harlem River waterfront in his district, which includes Fordham Landing. Previously, the Board had worked with Columbia University to come up with a grand vision for transforming the area into a resource for the community.

The transformation would be built around Regatta Park, which was set to receive a $1.6 million infusion from the Parks Department, thanks to the deal that put the Croton Water Filtration Plant in Van Cortlandt Park. That money would not have covered the construction costs, but it would have been a good start.

But the Parks Department used the majority of that funding — all but $97,000 — to mitigate lead contamination found during the construction of Harris Field in Bedford Park. Now, Brown and the Board want to use its $15,000 to get the Regatta Park ball rolling again, but are not getting any response from the Parks Department.

“There’s been a lot of feet dragging,” said Brown. “I don’t think anyone takes it seriously enough to really give an answer to the community that would indicate their intentions for the future.”

The Board wants to give the Parks Department Cabrera’s money to help kick off a scoping hearing — an open forum that allows the public to have input on the Regatta Park project.

In December, Cabrera’s office sent a letter to the Parks Department, cosigned by Community Board 7, formally requesting that they hold a scoping and offering to provide $15,000 to help fund the effort. Nearly four months later, there has been no response from Parks. The $15,000 would be returned to the city coffers if it isn’t used by July.

Jesslyn Moser, a Parks spokesperson, said in an e-mail that Parks has not made a decision on whether to begin a scoping for Regatta Park. “The decision to hold a scope meeting is determined by the overall feasibility of the project (including whether the available funding is adequate),” Moser wrote.

But Parks is hoping to recoup the lost Regatta Park funding when the Office of Management and Budget approves the next round of Croton-related funding, Moser said.

The Department of Transportation currently controls the city-owned land designated for the park, but aside from a few stacked guardrails and wood pallets, the lot, which extends out over the Harlem River, is empty.

In a meeting last fall, according to Cabrera’s Chief of Staff Greg Faulkner, the DOT’s Bronx commissioner, Constance Moran, told Cabrera’s office and Board representatives the DOT would give up the space if Parks comes up with a plan to redevelop it. That means Parks would need to commit to a scoping hearing.

“It’s frustrating,” said Faulkner, who first began pushing for Regatta Park as chairman of Community Board 7 a couple of years ago. “It seems like such a no brainer.”

Dart Westphal, a member of the Bronx Council on Environmental Quality, said Regatta Park would give Bronxites river access for boating and other recreational activities.

The river used to be more of a resource for residents. In the mid-19th century, according to Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan, steamboats stopped at Fordham Landing on their way down to Wall Street. Underneath the Highbridge, a major tourist attraction, there was an amusement park. A yacht club used the river for boating.

Today, while the Manhattan side has seen some development, the Bronx side of the river is mostly used for commercial purposes. On the south side of University Heights Bridge, a dairy company stores massive semi-trucks on a huge lot zoned for residential buildings. North of the bridge and the space sited for Regatta Park, there is a storage facility, the headquarters of a scaffolding company and a cement factory.

Between the storage facility and the city-owned Regatta Park site is a small wooded waterfront patch owned by Con Edison that is literally being used as a dump. In between random piles of hardened concrete, there are beds, clothes, empty detergent bottles, even half of what looks like a jeep. The jagged wood remnants of Fordham Landing pier poke through the water.

Brown, who’s been tied to the Fordham Landing redevelopment since the 1990s, said he wants to start doing beautification projects at the site. “The community is quite interested, but our hands are tied.”