Play Ball: How New York City destroyed two Bronx parks


hawk, squirrel & tree-Wash Sq Pk

Baseball season starts today!
(Or, so I’ve been told.)

I thought I’d take a look at Yankee Stadium and what happened there when New York City’s government paved the way (literally) for 400 40 year-old trees to be cut down and sliced away TWO parks in the Bronx to accommodate a private corporation.

At Washington Square Park, what transpired over the last few years is definitely complex. I’ve been busy researching the maneuvers the city employed to get its redesign “plan” approved — via lack of transparency or outright lies. However, the taking of two parks in the Bronx, which has “some of the highest rates of asthma and obesity in the city, yet the lowest ratios of parkland to 1,000 residents,” also strikes me as particularly outrageous. (Gotham Gazette, “Yankee Stadium Parkland Swap,” March 21st, 2006)

It is also yet another lesson in how the Bloomberg administration uses maneuvers, manipulations, lack of community input/awareness, and the New York City Council’s bad decisions, lack of oversight and/or looking the other way to put forth its agenda.

As Anne Schwartz outlined in the Gotham Gazette:

What if the city decided to put a stadium in the middle of your local park?

Don’t worry though. The city would rebuild most of the displaced athletic facilities in several other places.

But instead of being set inside a large, green space surrounded by hundreds of mature trees, the fields would be scattered on separate parcels, including the tops of parking garages. The new recreational spaces would be closer to the highway and train tracks and an additional five-minute to half-hour walk from where people live. Most of the trees would be cut down. The new stadium would go smack in the middle of the community’s current park, next to a residential area.

Seems hard to even imagine, doesn’t it? Yet it all happened to accommodate the Yankee’s “vision” for their new stadium.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe stated proudly before the City Council that he had 8000 trees lined up for planting in the Bronx to “mitigate” the loss of the 400 mature trees destroyed to build Yankee Stadium.

Mayor Bloomberg’s “Million Trees” initiative is “greenwashing” at its most manipulative. A true tree boosting initiative would work to save existing trees, not just haphazardly plant new ones.

And where do the wildlife live once their territory is destroyed? Wouldn’t a true “Parks” Department be advocating for wildlife, trees and open space? Shouldn’t paving over a city park and cutting down mature trees be the very very VERY last resort or – I’d argue – something we don’t even contemplate? This should be territory non grata for a private corporation.

I understand the Yankees opening game today (their last at the old Stadium) is delayed because of rain.

Update : Yankees Opening Day game postponed until tomorrow.

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Talk about the Park – Film Makers @ Washington Sq Pk This Weekend



I got a notice from some film makers from Ithaca, NY who are working on a documentary about street performers in NYC, focusing on Washington Square Park and incorporating issues around the “renovation.”

They would like to interview Park users this weekend, Saturday, March 29th and Sunday, March 30th.

Here is a description of their project:

Small Scale Productions, from Ithaca College, is in production on a 15-minute documentary pilot that will look into the lives of buskers/street performers in New York City, and the issues they face everyday (with the Park being the most recent obstacle). We hope to bring attention to the Park and to these individuals who are so vital to the culture of New York City. We are looking to interview those who are well aware with what has been going on with the reconstruction of the park. We are also looking to talk with buskers as well as community members who have been affected by the park’s remodeling. If interested, please call (315)481-1146 or write : info -at- smallscaleproductions.com

And they provided me this with this great definition of a “busker:”

A busker is someone who performs live on the streets or in parks/public places with objectives of entertaining people while at the same time trying to solicit donations. These people are also known as street performers. Busking is an English term that was coined in reference to the chimney sweeps who would perform on the streets after cleaning chimneys and pass out their large top-hats to try and collect tips.

Love that! Please contact them.

Turfs Almost Up for Parks Department

It’s a start. The New York City Council is at last showing some oversight of the Parks Department — around artificial turf. This substance has been placed by NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe in over 130 natural soil and grass fields across the five boroughs. (Thankfully, not at Washington Square Park – thus far.) People have questioned artificial turf being used in place of grass, for a number of reasons beginning with the fact that it sounds like a really bad idea – after all, it’s made from recycled rubber tires. But there are genuine health and environmental concerns.

Bill Crain, a developmental psychologist who works at City College, has been one of the leaders in exposing these potential problems. As he outlined to the City Council in December, when he first went over to Riverside Park to check on the synthetic turf installed in 2006, he was surprised to find the rubber granules so prevalent on the surface of the turf. A boy came over and said to him, “I get them in my shoes and they come out when I take them off at night.”

Yesterday, an article appeared in the New York Daily News, “Council Members push for removal of pulverized tires from city parks,”and outlines a bill that is being proposed by some City Council members which would require the “estimated 30 million pounds” of synthetic turf out of city parks — to be removed within a year and alternatives sought based on “unanswered questions around health concerns.”

When I first wrote about artificial turf, amidst other problems with NYC’s Parks Department, a p.r. person from Atlanta wrote to me letting me know that she did not think I accurately represented the facts — that no state or federal agency has banned or restricted it. (Well, cigarettes were promoted for a long time too without warnings from the government so I don’t know if that’s the strongest argument.) She stated that synthetic turf was great for athletes in the communities because they can now practice year round and even in rain. (!)

So … is the lesson that when you’re young you get to frolick around on your artificial turf rain or shine? … Is it so terrible to learn that sometimes we have to alter our schedules because of mother nature? Probably best when we are also playing amidst “mother nature” and not along potentially harmful synthetic turf — which I hope we will see out of our city Parks soon.

**If you’d like more information on Bill Crain’s research with Dr. Jim Zhang on toxic chemicals in synthetic turf, or Crain’s summary of how natural settings benefit children’s psychological development, you can email him at Billcrain -at- aol.com and he will send it to you.

Connect the Dots: A guide to the NYC Parks Department –Washington Sq Park and Union Sq Park “Redesigns”

Washington Square Park and Union Square Park are both in the midst of redesigns by New York City. There are some striking similarities in how these controversial plans of two historic parks initially got pushed through despite community disapproval and widespread negative public opinion.

A Primer on how the New York City Parks Department — headed by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe at the behest of Mayor Bloomberg — works:

  • Community requests some repairs of Park

At Washington Square Park, the background is a bit murkier as far as who initiated the discussion with the Parks Department but most everyone agreed that the Parks Department had let the Park fall into disrepair and it needed some basic fixing (roads repaired and cracks in paths paved) and a tune-up.

At Union Square Park, in 2002, City Council Member Margarita Lopez was able to allocate $1.9 million from City funds expressly for the improvement of two playgrounds on both sides of the pavilion (on the north end).

  • Local Community Board Votes

At Washington Square Park, in 2005, Community Board 2 in Manhattan initially approved the city’s “renovation” plans — a flawed vote since essential information was withheld by the Parks Department about the redesign elements. (Community Board 2 later rescinded its approval in 2007.)

At Union Square Park, Community Board 5 (also, Manhattan) “approved a new design for the north end of the square with the stipulation that the city would contemplate the pavilion housing ‘cultural institutions (and) community groups … in addition to restauranteurs.” (Metro, March 21st, 2008)

Note: Community Boards votes are largely “advisory” and are not binding in any way. However, they are utilized in the court of public opinion and it is considered important for City Agencies to gain their approval. City Council Members like to point to their approval – when it suits them.

  • Crucial Information Withheld and Subsequently Discovered; Parks Department Dishonest With the Public

After numerous rounds of meetings with the NYC Parks Department about Washington Square Park’s “renovation,” the community discovered that the presentations omitted key information: that there was a major reduction in the amount of public space based on the redesign plan; that the Tisch Family had been given naming rights to the historic fountain; etc.

At Union Square Park, despite city assurances that they were considering the Community Board’s wishes for community groups to utilize the pavilion, it was discovered recently that the city had “already applied for building permits to put a restaurant in the pavilion.” C.B. 5 member Kevin Finnegan was quoted as saying “The building plans are for a restaurant — it has a kitchen and seating for 120 people.”
(Metro, March 21st, 2008)

  • Historic Elements of Park Treated with Contempt by Bloomberg Administration

The aspects that make Washington Square Park historically a free speech gathering place and a great overall public space were treated with disdain by the Bloomberg Administration. Their plan is to cut away public space to control public gatherings and un-permitted performances. They are ruining the historic nature of the park, dismantling the large circular Fountain, which also serves as a public rallying venue, rebuilding it in a smaller version eight yards away with vast reduction of the ad-hoc seating and renaming it (a plaque on each side) for the billionaire Tisch Family.

The Union Square Park Pavilion’s history is primarily known as the space where numerous political demonstrations occurred. The first Labor Day Parade in 1882 ended up at the northern end of Union Square at the Pavilion.

  • Budget Swells ; Corporate Entities Enter Picture

At Washington Square Park, repairs could have been accomplished with the $6 million the Parks Department allegedly had on hand for Washington Square Park but instead a $16 million budget was put into play with financing by the Tisch Family ($2.5 million) and NYU ($1 million). Current “designer” of the redesign, George Vellonakis, is on the record as stating that half of the money will come from private donors. Thus far, no others have been named but the budget for Phase I alone has skyrocketed from $6 million to $13 million.

The $1.9 million that Council Member Lopez secured for Union Square Park has never been spent. In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg himself (and greeted by hecklers) “announced the city would kick in $8 million* to fund a new $14 million renovation of the entire north end.” It was announced that “the balance (was) being paid by the Union Square Partnership, the area’s business improvement district, which currently helps take care of the park.” (Metro, January 25th, 2007) *The City’s contribution is now $11.75 million and the entire project is projected at $20 million. In addition, an “anonymous donor” has given $5 million towards the project, contingent on a restaurant being in the pavilion. (New York Times, January 28, 2007) The Parks Department of course insisted initially that there was no such stipulation but the truth has since been revealed.

  • Reduction of Historic Public Space

Presently, Washington Square Park is scheduled to lose 23 percent of public space around the historic fountain.

Union Square Park will see a widening of the street at 16th, and a reduction of the space allocated to the famous GreenMarket (The GreenMarket was interestingly enough founded by Parks Commissioner Benepe’s father, Barry) – largely responsible for helping revive the area and neighborhood – as well as reduction of green space around Pavilion and chopping down of numerous trees (see next item).

  • Trees Seen as Expendable for Corporate Interests

In Phase I ALONE of the Washington Square Park redesign, up to 16 trees in the Northwest Quadrant have been deemed ‘in the way’ of the city’s plans. Thus far, 11 have been axed. There is no word on what tree destruction will happen during Phase II.

At Union Square Park, 14 trees are inexplicably headed for the chopping block to expand the restaurant space at the Pavilion.

Note: We’d like to reflect for a moment on the fact that these plans are coming from our City’s “Parks” Department. Hopefully, you’ve taken that in…

  • Conflicts of Interest

Controversial designer of the “aligned” version of Washington Square Park, George Vellonakis, is allegedly on the board of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation which strangely enough took no position on the redesign of this landmarked historic Park, while seemingly taking strong positions on every other issue of redesign in the Village.

At Union Square Park, Restauranteur Danny Meyer — who is likely to helm the proposed restaurant at Union Square Park — is also co-chair of the Union Square Partnership (a BID – business improvement district organization) which is putting up a large part of the money to redesign the north end of the Pavilion.

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There are many other aspects to Washington Square Park’s muddied approval “process” that we will go into at another time (“The Gerson-Quinn Agreement,” the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Arts Commission approvals, etc.) but they don’t apply to what happened – thus far – at Union Square Park. There are enough similarities and alarming details outlined above without adding anything else at the moment.

“Crimes Against Nature:” The NYC Parks Department

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Another story appeared over the weekend in the New York Times(3/22) “In a City Park, a Crime Against Nature” about the killing of 35 cedar trees in Inwood Hill Park.

I’m amazed at the ability of the Parks Department to spin things.

Forestry worker Katerli Bounds, who discovered the “ruined cedars,” told the Times, “It’s kind of disheartening.”

Well, yeah. It was kind of disheartening when the Parks Department slaughtered 11 old trees at Washington Square Park for the misguided decision to “align” the fountain with the Arch. It was kind of disheartening when the Bronx lost 300 to 400 trees at two parks for building of a new Yankee Stadium. It was kind of disheartening when Parks Department destroyed 105 trees at East River Park during its “reconstruction.” It was kind of disheartening to learn that Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wants to cut down 14 majestic trees at Union Square Park to make room for Danny Meyer, who is also on the board of the Union Square Partnership – the local BID(business improvement district), to have a restaurant there in the historic pavilion.

Disheartening?

If the 35 trees slaughtered at Inwood Hill Park are deemed arborcide, then I’d say that Parks Commissioner Benepe has quite a record on his hands.

How is it against the law for a stranger to kill 35 trees on City Parks land and yet for the Parks Department — in the interest of privatization of our Parks — to ax multiple numbers (tens. hundreds. thousands.) of healthy trees, that is just fine?

How does one qualify as arborcide with a fine and jail time and the other doesn’t?

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In other Parks news, Metro reported on March 20th, that the cost for building replacement parkland “as part of the controversial Yankee Stadium project has jumped 122 percent since 2006 — and 280 percent since the team first proposed taking Macombs Dam and Mullaly parks in 2004.”

(At Washington Square Park, budget for Phase I alone has jumped from $6 million to $13 million. Original total budget for two phases of this unwanted “plan”: $16 million.)

Commissioner Benepe stated at the City Council hearing on Wednesday 3/19 that the Parks Department is “committed to replacing parkland” with tree replacement of 8000 trees “to mitigate the ones cut” in the Bronx for the Stadium.

Benepe stated, “It’s going to be hard to find room to plant all the trees we plan to plant.”

(That sounds like responsible policy, doesn’t it?)

At Washington Square Park, in Phase I alone, they stated up to 16 trees are up for chopping (11 thus far) but there would be up to 39 REPLACEMENT trees. That’s 23 additional trees. So it’s all good — according to the Parks Department and the City Council. Except it’s not.

Parks Department Commissioner Benepe’s spin is clever and it’s manipulative. He cannot cavalierly advocate for the destruction of our city trees — and for the destruction of our city, via endless privatization and homogenization of public space — and then state that it’s magically okay because there will be “new trees planted.” The Parks Department is supposed to act as STEWARDS for the trees, NOT — as per Mayor Bloomberg’s directive — for Danny Meyer and the Tisch Family and NYU.

When will this end? And how do we get this to stop?

Who determines who is a tree killing “madman?”

New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe is responsible for the felling of eleven 50-to-100 year old trees at Washington Square Park thus far.

(The prominent tree in the center of this picture was axed by the Parks Department, as were all the wonderful trees that lined the fountain area.)

300-400 trees were destroyed from two Bronx Parks to create the new Yankee Stadium. Benepe has proposed killing 14 trees at Union Square Park to make additional room for an upscale restaurant. Yesterday, at the City Council hearings on the Parks Department budget, I discovered that he wants “thousands” of trees to hit the chopping block — according to activists in Queens — to put in the controversial and potentially dangerous artificial turf that he is such a fan of at Ridgewood Reservoir/Highland Park.

It makes me wonder — who determines who is a tree killing “madman?”

If one gives the order, yet doesn’t hold the ax, isn’t it the same?

See following story.

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From the New York Daily News on March 16th…

Tree Killing ‘madman’ axes Inwood

Police and parks officials are hunting for a “madman” who chopped down 30 young red-cedar trees in Inwood Hill Park with an ax last week.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said this is the second case of arborcide in the upper Manhattan park.

“I have no idea why somebody would do it,” said Benepe. “It appears to be a serial tree killer. It’s a crime against nature.”

The trees were planted in 1996 as part of a plan to reestablish woodlands in the 196-acre park. Parks workers found the small trees, between 4 and 8 feet tall, on their sides Thursday.

“It’s really discouraging that a madman with an ax would deliberately kill trees,” Benepe said.

“It’s crushing,” said Jennifer Hoppa, administrator of Northern Manhattan Parks.

Police are investigating, and parks officials are posting flyers and offering a $500 reward.

Under the city’s “arborcide law,” anyone who damages, destroys or otherwise harms a street tree or park tree faces a $15,000 fine and up to one year in jail.

Anyone with information should call the 34th Precinct stationhouse at (212) 927-2640.

“But if you see somebody with an ax or a saw, call 911,” Benepe said.

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To the New York City Council on NYC Parks Department

The New York City Council Parks Committee held Preliminary hearings on the Parks Department budget yesterday, March 19th. My testimony follows.

We would have liked to have heard some hard hitting questions from the City Council members to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe but that did not occur. Perhaps we can work on this for the Final Budget hearings in May.

Note: I would have liked to have covered the proposed tree destruction and privatization in Union Square Park, dangerous artificial turf in parks across our city, the attempted privatization of Randall’s Island, the mass destruction of trees for Yankee Stadium, etc. — I focused on Washington Square Park as I think it is representative of the Parks Department’s reckless abandon and I think it is an area in which the City Council needs to – and can – intervene.

********************************************

I am concerned about the Parks Department and the privatization of our parks but I’d like to specifically focus on what’s happening at Washington Square Park.

The New York City Council needs to hold oversight hearings on what’s transpired at Washington Square Park.

It should not be up to lawsuits to be the only method that holds the Parks Department accountable to transparency and honesty.

The Parks Department did not reveal essential elements of their plans before going before local Community Board 2 and the Landmarks Preservation Commission – and gaining their initial approval. These are part of our checks & balances and if the information is flawed, then the process will be.

The Parks Department went before the community stating that there would only be a 5% reduction in public space.

The existing entire plaza is 51,223 square feet.

The proposed plaza is 39,419 square feet.

That is a reduction of 11,804 square feet.

That is no five percent. That is a 23 % REDUCTION.

The Parks Department is messing with the historic character of this Park which is a landmark. People come from all around to go to this park to see what is happening there each day and each day it is something different.

The Parks Department sold off the naming rights of the fountain to the Tisch family for $2.5 million so that the fountain could then be called TISCH FOUNTAIN. Another fact not revealed to the Community Board.

In addition, I’m sure you’ve heard that they are digging up 18th and 19th century burial grounds. They told the community they would only dig 1-3 feet below grade and they are digging 7-11 feet.

Community Board 2 later rescinded its approval – something Commissioner Benepe does not recognize when he writes to City Council members who question his actions around the Park.

Eleven 50-100 year old trees have been cut down thus far.

It is not JUST, as Commissioner Benepe implied, about cavalierly cutting down old trees and planting new ones — it’s about being STEWARDS for the trees that are there.

The Parks Department let Washington Square Park fall into disrepair and then swooped in with a disingenuous redesign that is unwanted by virtually everyone.

The original plan called for the costs to be $16 million.

Phase I (there are two Phases) was originally $6 million and is now budgeted at $13 million.

Where is that money coming from?

This allows for the further privatization of the park.

I ask the City Council to hold hearings on this issue and apply further scrutiny to the Parks Department.

Thank you.

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–There’s some more we’ll post about what we learned about some other parks — particularly Ridgewood Reservoir in Queens – having major interference from Parks Department – which must be stopped – and some heart breaking details if the plan is allowed to go through. Interestingly enough, Ridgewood Reservoir (which I’d never heard of, and is on the Brooklyn-Queens border) was constructed in 1848 to provide drinking water to the city of Brooklyn! It was taken out of the water system during the late 20th century. According to testimony by advocates for the Reservoir, the Parks Department plans to destroy thousands of trees to build new synthetic turf ballfields on this pristine site. ! More on this to come. Did we mention we think the Parks Department needs some oversight?

Where in the world is Alan Gerson?

Alan Gerson — the NY City Council representative for District 1 in Manhattan, which covers Washington Square Park — was missing in action Wednesday March 19th at the City Council hearing on the Parks Department and its Preliminary Budget. Alan Gerson is on the Parks & Recreation Committee of the City Council and all of his colleagues on the committee showed except for Gerson and Letitia James (Brooklyn).

Since Washington Square Park is a ‘hot topic’ for his constituents, we find it a bit odd that he would miss this presentation by the Parks Department and a chance to ask them some questions. (Although Parks & Recreation Committee chair Helen Foster – Bronx – noted that “if Alan had shown up,” his topic of focus was to ask Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe about “the bathhouses.”) Since the budget for the City’s redesign of Washington Square Park’s Phase I alone has more than doubled from $6 million to $13 million (the project was initially budgeted at $16 million TOTAL), it seemed like a perfect opportunity for Council Member Gerson to quiz Commissioner Benepe on this topic.

Council Member Gerson also failed to show up for an important Community Board 2 meeting in late December at which the Washington Square Park “renovation” was discussed and in which he was supposed to report back on whether he was releasing key City Council funds – under his discretion – for the Washington Square Park project to the Parks Department. (He sent his aide who read a statement which did not answer this question. His office now says that they told the community at that time that the funds were being released).

Stay tuned…

We’re amazed at all the layers that exist when one starts looking closely at the Washington Square Park issue. We have many ideas and information to share, some of which necessitates more research before reporting back on –which means a little less active blogging for just a few days. But keep checking back. And don’t forget to attend the NY City Council hearings re: NYC Parks Department @ City Hall on:

Wednesday, March 19th —

11:30 a.m. Parks Department Presentation of Preliminary Budget & City Council member’s questions.

1:30 p.m. Public Comment.

Full Details here.

We’ll report back on Thursday!

“Honey, I Shrunk the Park”


Figures don’t lie. But a lot of liars figure.

The NYC Parks Department figures that the “new and improved” Washington Square Park will have just as much public space as the old one. But let’s check the figures:

* The EXISTING entire plaza is currently 51,223 square feet.

* The PROPOSED plaza area will be 39,419 square feet.

That’s an 11,804 square foot reduction, right in their official plans.

* The old and expansive interior plaza was 27,650 square feet.

* The PROPOSED interior plaza will be 20,662 square feet.

Who’s lying? Who’s figuring?

It was a lie when George Vellonakis, the new plan’s “designer,” told the Community that the reduction in public space would be five percent.

The shrinking of the public space in Washington Square Park has a tremendous impact on how it will be used, which in turn impacts on the character of the park. Who gathers there? HOW will they gather? And how will the new, constricted space be regulated?

Will musicians need official approval? Will performers and political speak-outs be required to obtain a permit? Will the free spirit of the Park be shredded and destroyed?

And maybe that’s Mayor Bloomberg’s whole point.