Starlight Park — which contains the Bronx River Greenway’s one-mile South Bronx link, spanning from Westchester Avenue to East Tremont Avenue between the Bronx River and the Sheridan Parkway — finally opened this spring. But community members complain that they can’t enjoy what has become a refuge for teenagers skipping school.
At a recent meeting of the Community Board 9 Parks and Recreation Committee, attendees complained that with more than a dozen schools in the direct vicinity of the park, students regularly hang out there in big groups, leaving older residents afraid to walk through it. The area surrounding the park is desolate, they said, adding to concerns.
The New York Police Department could not say whether there have been any incidents in the park, as it only keeps crime reports on certain large parks and Starlight isn’t one of them. The 43rd Precinct, which covers the area one side of the park, declined to provide any information or to comment.
Details about crime at the park are sketchy at best. But the fear is real.
“This could escalate into a serious problem if it’s not addressed early enough,” said District Manager Francisco Gonzalez, echoing residents’ memories of Bronx River Park becoming a breeding ground for gang activity.
An overpass on 174th Street that provides easy access for kids to cross the highway into the park after closing time contributes to the unruly environment, residents say. It cannot be closed off because the park is a greenway and has to remain accessible at all times.
“The greenway concept is a great idea,” Gonzalez said. But in certain areas, he said, “it’s a problem if it’s not supervised.”
The Bronx River Alliance is rallying people on their website to demand the completion of phase two of the park, which has stalled due to a disagreement between Amtrak and the state’s Department of Transportation. At issue is a link between Starlight Park and Concrete Plant Park, without which communities will remain cut off from the river. The connection would presumably make the Greenway more accessible for wholesome uses.
Police officers and Parks Enforcement Patrol officers are tasked with discouraging more troublesome activities. But according to a resolution from March that passed the Bronx Borough Board, the Bronx has been operating with fewer PEP officers than any other borough.
“While the borough of the Bronx has the highest percentage, as well as highest acreage, of Parkland, we currently have the lowest amount of PEP officers, with 13, as opposed to Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, who currently have 20, 14, 18 and 14, respectively,” it reads. “Thus, the number of PEP officers assigned to the Bronx starting July 1st needs to be equivalent in ratio with the amount of parkland that this Borough contains.”
The resolution called for “proportionate PEP officers assigned, to counteract the dangerous conditions that often arise” and that the Bronx receive “a sufficient portion of the newly-hired PEP officers, and that those new officers are all assigned to Patrol positions, as opposed to communication and clerical positions.”
Parks added 81 PEP officers to its existing 86 in the Fiscal Year 2014 budget. The Parks Department says 16 new officers have been or will be assigned to the Bronx — which, taken with the 13 noted in the resolution, brings the borough’s number up to 29, about 17 percent of PEP officers citywide.
“Of course the Bronx got the lowest amount,” CB 9 Chair Cheryl Morrow said at the recent parks committee meeting.
The Parks Department would not say how it makes decisions about where to place PEP officers.
The Bronx Borough President’s Office has asked that more PEP officers be assigned within the borough. “We are calling for more PEP officers, as they provide a valuable service in ensuring that the quality of our parks are maintained,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said in an e-mail.
Community Board 9 members concerned with safety in Starlight Park are among those who would like to see more of a PEP presence. But they are not waiting on the Parks Department. CB 9 leaders are trying to gather police officers, school safety officers, PEP officers and others to collectively come up with solutions before somebody gets hurt.