A stream of cash pouring into the Parks Department budget has created a rehabilitation bonanza at Bronx parks, but the mostly welcome windfall is also displacing community sports teams and visitors to parks across the borough.
As an incentive for Bronx officials to agree to the construction of the nearly $3 billion Croton Water Filtration Plant in Van Cortlandt Park by the New York City Department of Environmental Preservation, the agency agreed to give the Parks Department $220 million to $260 million for rehabilitation projects at 63 parks around the borough.
The deal had one major provision: The money had to be spent by 2009. Officials in the borough aren’t completely sure why that deadline exists, but the result is a rush to spend. As the weather warmed up and both children’s and adults’ baseball teams hit the diamonds, they faced a flurry of rehabbing that’s made it hard to play.
Although park renovation sounds like a great thing to many, critics also fault the undertaking for including too little community input, benefiting disadvantaged neighborhoods like Hunts Point, Soundview and Highbridge less than other areas, and even possibly contravening DEP’s own charter.
“It’s inconveniencing a lot of people with the construction they’re doing,” said Anthony Robles, president of the Bronx Panthers youth football team. The Panthers were booted from the Williamsbridge Oval Park, in nearby Norwood, due to a construction project. Robles said he learned of the Oval project “right when they were coming in with the equipment and closing off the fields.”
Having to share their field, members of the Love Gospel Assembly Little League were forced to move due to several rain puddles at home plate. Coach Rory Gilbert said, “We have to coexist – but I have permits for this field.” Referring to two other large groups, including the young football players currently using the field, Gilbert added, “But I’m getting ready to start batting and if they have a problem with that, I really can’t do anything.”
Obtaining a field requires that an applicant fill out a form and pay an $8 per hour fee, with a two hour use minimum, but one Parks Department staffer explained: “The big problem is if we have the availability.”
When completed, Harris Park – where fences went up in April and several teams are now sharing one field – will have four new ball fields, a multipurpose field as well as a new track, playground and an exercise equipment room with showers.
Other projects include a new synthetic soccer field for the Williamsbridge Oval and a new 2,400-square-foot exhibition and visitors’ hall at Poe Park, the historic cottage on the Grand Concourse, where Edgar Allen Poe once lived. A new walkway at Devoe Park on West Fordham Road was recently completed.
Parks watchdog Geoffrey Croft is unhappy about more than just rough patches in the summer baseball schedule. Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates, claims the DEP charter was broken when the agency offered to fix the borough’s parks. “There are fees that residents are paying to the DEP so, by law, those fees are supposed to be used for water projects,” he said.
“The whole thing was done behind closed doors,” Croft says. “The $240 to $260 million is being diverted from water fees, so you have Bronx residents who are paying an increased water rate that is supposed to go to water and DEP infrastructure.”
Meanwhile, he charges, “some of the projects are so under funded.” The short shrift that Pugsley Creek and Soundview Park in the southeast section of the borough are getting may have something to do with how the deal was made. “There was no plan, no community groups came together” to give input, Croft says.
With a budget that’s already risen from $1.3 billion to $3 billion, the Croton Water Filtration Plant project already had plenty of detractors. Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz, a reliable critic, said DEP has addressed the charter question. Politically it smells though, Dinowitz said. “They used the $200 million to basically get political support from some of the Bronx’s elected officials. They were kind of using the public treasury to get what they wanted.”
Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr. and Bronx Parks Commissioner Hector Aponte both have said they’re delighted that local parks are getting a facelift, and don’t sound overly perplexed about the 2009 cutoff. “I think probably – and I’m guessing – the people wanted to be sure that the parks would be built before the filter plant would be done,” Aponte offered as the reason for the deadline.
For his part, Carrion said he thought it had to do with a bond issue. “I believe it is, but I’m not entirely sure.”
A park advocate, meanwhile, surmised that the Bloomberg administration wanted to ensure the contracts were handed out and the work was completed before the mayor’s term is up.
The borough president vowed to assist any little (or big) leaguers who reach out to his office and have been displaced, or are experiencing problems with a field, due to the ongoing construction projects. “Whenever a field that’s being worked on and is eliminated for a season, the parks department is supposed to work with us and the community to find a substitute field for the season,” he said.
DEP public affairs director Michael Saucier offered a statement explaining the timeframe for parks improvements. “The four-year timeframe for completing Parks projects is not related to bonds. The 2004 Memorandum of Agreement between DEP and Parks provides that the Parks projects will be completed in approximately four years.” He later added, “That’s so completion of park improvements would coincide with the completion of the plant, more or less.”
As to how DEP was able to get around its charter by spending water-project money on parks, Saucier said, “The parks improvements are considered an amenity, or community benefit, related directly to the construction of the filtration plant, and are considered part of the plant’s capital costs, which are paid through water and sewer rates.”
When the plant is finished and the expanded ball fields and recreational facilities are open, things may look different to the borough’s athletes and officials. For now, though, Dinowitz maintains, “Nobody’s against improving parks. I don’t think this was the way to do it, though. The Bronx should not have had park improvements for having the filtration plant here … and the Bronx should not have had to pay such a heavy price.”
But local parks chief Aponte says, “The end product, of course, is going to benefit people for years and years to come.”