Samara Swanston climbs through the hole in the chain-link fencing that separates Williamsburg’s residents from the Brooklyn waterfront and steps into a wonderland of wild growth, rotting piers and decaying factory buildings.
With the same persistence that drives residents to cut a new entrance every time the owners of the property mend the fence, invisible gardeners have planted tulip bulbs and anonymous craftsmen have turned old bricks and wood into benches. “We’re a waterfront community, but the community doesn’t have access to the waterfront,” Swanston says, looking out across the East River. “So the community has taken ownership of this site.”
Swanston hopes ownership will become official this year, thanks to a grant that her group, the Watchperson Project of Greenpoint/Williamsburg, helped secure from the state’s $1.75 billion Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act. The money will pay for the purchase of at least a third of the site’s 15 acres.
But as Williamsburg looks forward to a new park, most other urban low-income communities have been left out of bond act funding. The city has been behind the eight-ball from the beginning–some of the language of the act itself gives preference to everyone but New York City. It doesn’t help that the process to determine who gets funded ends with the governor and two legislative leaders, or that the city’s system of asking for its fair share is barely functional.
And so, with nearly half of the state’s population, the city has seen only 12.6 percent of the $328.3 million doled out since the act was passed in November 1996. Of the 25 open space projects approved statewide this year, for example, the Williamsburg riverfront site is one of only four grants within City Limits. And the other three city programs that passed muster are in primarily middle class–and Republican–Staten Island.
Time is running out. To get the most for its money, the state wants to spend down the bulk of the bond act funds over the next five years. So if communities can’t figure out how to tap into this funding soon, they are likely to miss out on a rare opportunity to make meaningful air and water quality improvements in their neighborhoods.
Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal could be on a poster of where the city could use money for environmental clean-up. Typhus and hepatitis fester in the water, and during rainstorms runoff adds sewage and street garbage to the soup. About half of the surrounding community of 16,000 lives in public housing. “This is Brooklyn’s sink,” says John C. Muir, executive director at the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment, which is helping educate the community about possible solutions. “This is where you throw away stuff that shouldn’t be around decent folks–and you throw away the people who live there.”
Muir says one way to address this inequity is to stem the sewage overflow problems with a portion of the $790 million set aside in the bond act for water quality projects. But to do that, he says, the Gowanus community must repeatedly make demands to the authorities: “It’s too easy to be forgotten and swept under the carpet.”
In addition to money to improve water quality, the act provides hundreds of millions of dollars for safe drinking water, brownfield clean-up, solid waste programs and air quality improvements. “We have more money than we know what to do with, and it ain’t coming [to the city],” said Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, at an environmental justice meeting in February. “We have to change that.”
Brodsky is in an influential position to help make those changes. As the chair of the Assembly’s environmental conservation committee, he has some weight with the two legislators–Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver–who, along with Governor George Pataki, are required to sign off on nearly every project. In the first round of funding, these three doled out $235 million. Of that, a mere $32.6 million was designated for the city, including about $18 million for school coal furnace conversions and $2.7 million for clean-fuel buses.
In that first round, the politicians made their choices from a list of projects already in the pipeline and personal pet programs. Since then, the funding procedure has been improved somewhat: Municipalities now submit applications that are scored by a handful of state agencies. But that doesn’t mean politics has been erased from the process. The Watchperson Project got its Williamsburg park application on the state Parks Department’s short list via the Brooklyn Borough President’s representative to a statewide environmental committee. Then lobbying from the Sierra Club’s environmental justice group helped convince Speaker Silver that the project was a must-fund.
But if politics helped position a park in Brooklyn, it has helped the suburbs a whole lot more. Suffolk County, with 7 percent of the state’s population, has snagged nearly one-third of the bond act funding handed out this year, money for everything from state parks to wastewater treatment plants. For bond act scoring, Suffolk’s suburban landscape has the perfect mix of threatened land and overburdened waste treatment facilities. It also is home to a segment of the voting population that may well be swayed to re-elect Governor Pataki if he is seen as their green savior.
It’s a much different picture than New York City voters must have envisioned behind the ballot booth curtains in November 1996, when they decided three to one that going almost $2 billion in debt to shore up the state’s environmental infrastructure was a good idea. In contrast, upstate voters were ready to take a pass, rejecting the referendum three to two.
“Some opponents of the environmental bond act tried to scare upstaters by saying all the money would go to the city,” notes Gary Sheffer, spokesman for the Department of Environment Conservation, one of the state agencies that scores funding applications. But neither the upstaters nor the downstaters knew that some of the state’s largest mainstream environmental groups had already decided where much of the money would flow. And their take on green issues has more to do with woodland hikes than with inner city needs.
Earlier that year, when Pataki was considering the bond act as a way to increase his appeal among environmentalists, powerful green groups–including the National Audobon Society, Adirondack Council, Natural Resources Defense Council and Trust for Public Open Space Institute–met with Pataki’s people to shape the parameters. Insiders say they cut a deal with the governor’s staffers: As long as it included plenty of money to buy land for preservation, they would sell the act to their supporters.
“These are powerful groups,” explains Jeff Jones, communications director at Environmental Advocates, an Albany-based nonprofit that bridges the upstate/downstate divide. “They can lobby with more success in Albany than community-based organizations in New York City can.” They’ve been rewarded. The Nature Conservancy snagged $4.5 million in clean water contracts paid for by the bond act, for example, and the Trust netted $6 million. So far, nearly 40 preservation and environmental restoration projects upstate have been funded–including money to purchase 800 acres of forest land in Putnam and 130 acres in Westchester.
“[New York City] doesn’t have Sterling Forests in pristine condition,” says Leslie Lowe, executive director New York Environmental Justice Alliance, a coalition of community-based advocacy groups. “While it’s excellent that the state is saving pristine forests, that’s not all the open space that should be saved.”
Sheffer argues that the city still has plenty of opportunity to harvest money from the bond act. The state has already promised $75 million to help close the mega-dump Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. The city could also get much of the $200 million slated for brownfields and potentially millions more to improve and protect municipal parks and historic landmarks. He points out that in February the city snared $2.5 million in parks money–46 percent of the total doled out in that category. “The city is pretty well represented,” he concludes.
But many of the rules limiting what New York City can ask for were etched into the bond act itself. For example, the project descriptions in its “open space” rules call for forest preserves, ecological areas and scenic wonders of singular quality, effectively barring the city from all but one of the six categories–recreation. Municipalities with more than 1 million residents–another way of saying New York City–are specifically denied some bond funding, such as assistance to small businesses with hazardous emissions. And critics say urban issues like asthma and lead abatement weren’t even on the table when the categories for bond act spending were designed.
New York City’s dominance in the municipal parks and historic sites category actually points out another interesting plot twist in the funding drama: City Hall made almost no attempt to cash in. Meanwhile, Suffolk’s supremacy, like that of neighboring Nassau County, can be partially attributed to aggressive applying.
Nonprofit groups turned in 32 of the city’s 36 parks applications last fall–and most were from upscale organizations like the National Arts Club and the South Street Seaport. The majority of their grant money will go toward work like fixing roofs and restoring facades, hardly projects that will add more city green space.
Since this is the only category that nonprofits can apply for, the Giuliani administration is on its own to handle the remaining bond act applications. And its past record has been dismal. More than 950 applications for local parks, water quality improvement projects, brownfields and municipal recycling programs poured into Albany from localities around the state last fall. Only 47 were on stationery from the City of New York. “Part of the problem in the bond act is that a city has to apply. And if that city doesn’t apply, we’re pretty much hamstrung,” Brodsky says.
Many of the projects that New York City did deign to apply for are environmental compliance mandates from Albany and Washington, rather than responses to community outreach. Neighborhood groups were left scrambling to grab the city’s attention. “If you want to pull down as many funds as possible–which the city hasn’t and probably won’t–you need [to pull together] a list of potential projects,” explains Jenell Horton, an environmental analyst at the Independent Budget Office. “That hasn’t happened.”
Much of the criticism of the city’s application process comes from how unwieldy it is. City agencies, including the Economic Development Corporation, Parks Department and Department of Environmental Protection, all submit state applications without any strong central coordination. None of them have actively gone into the communities to seek worthy ideas. “We aren’t set up as a municipality to maximize our opportunities yet. I think we can do better as a city if we communicate better,” says Mary Ellen Kris, DEC’s regional administrator for New York City and surrounding suburbs.
Annette Barbaccia, director of the city’s Office of Environmental Coordination, counters that the city agencies do know what the others are doing, but they can better tackle their specialties independently. And she blames some of the problems on upstate bureaucrats, noting that the city is still in dispute with the state over bond act definitions and qualifications in some categories, such as brownfield restoration on certain types of city-owned property. “The city is trying to get as much money as it can get,” she says. “I think you’ll see more applications as time goes on–as more favorable interpretations [of the Bond Act] take effect.”
While City Hall awaits bond act concessions, environmental advocates are mobilizing to pressure the city to apply more earnestly for money and educate communities on how to get in line for funding. The New York Environmental Justice Alliance held a meeting of city neighborhood groups in February to talk strategy. Since then, the alliance has started a “wish-list” of community environmental projects that would need bond act money to go forward.
Independent of the alliance’s efforts, the League of Conservation Voters has succeeded to some extent in getting on the city’s radar by meeting with officials to explain community needs. “There is definitely room for improvement in applications, and we’re trying to work with the city to change those numbers,” says John Johnson, who is spearheading the league’s efforts. “So far the city has been very responsive, but the proof will be in the results.”
The opportunity to see those results is still several months away. No one connected with the bond act is really surprised that the next funding announcements will hit in November–just in time for the election.