Parks paradise: NYC spent $3 billion in eight years on urban oases. Where’s all that green going?

By Jason Sheftell
New York, NY (September 10, 2010)- It’s an explosion, and I think quite possibly the best spending of taxpayer dollars for neighborhood improvement in the last half century.


In the biggest renaissance of New York City park-building since the 1930s, over $3 billion in city funds has been spent on new parks in the past eight years. If things go according to plan, $2 billion more will be spent in the next four years. “It’s so big, it’s hard to wrap your head around,” says Adrian Benepe, New York City parks and recreation commissioner. “Big or small, everywhere you look there is a project going on. Without great parks, you cannot have great neighborhoods.”
Under Mayor Bloomberg’s 30-year PlaNYC, one goal is to have a city park no more than 10 minutes from the front door of every New Yorker. Directly tied to economic development, a good park will consistently contribute to the appreciation of your home. It can spur growth, as seen in the 40 buildings that have been added near the High Line park on the West Side. This mayor knows that. Benepe, who worked for the parks department in high school, raking beer cans in East River Park in the 1970s, remembers when parks were a blight.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, New York City parks had that ‘Death Wish’ feel,” he says, referring to the old Charles Bronson movie where violent forces ruled the city’s open spaces. “Over the years since then, parks commissioners and certain mayors became obsessed with improving parks. Now, it’s the healthy economy of a few years back, a mayor who believes that economic growth is tied to neighborhood improvement, and concerned citizens, elected officials and environmental conservationists who want this city to have the highest quality of life possible.”
Outside your doorway, over 26% of total New York City land mass is in city-run or Federal parks. There are more than 5,000 spaces including large parks, greenways (small triangles where streets converge), playgrounds and more than 800 community gardens. Over 170 parks are now under construction. The parks department also oversees 66 city pools, all city beaches, over 1,200 monuments and more than 29,000 city acres. Over 30% of Staten Island is parkland.
The department employs more than 9,000 New Yorkers, including 3,000 summer volunteers and 3,000 participants in a welfare-to-work program that employs single mothers and the unemployed to clean and maintain parks. Over 400 designers, landscape architects and engineers work in Olmsted Center in Flushing Park, the largest design facility of its kind in the U.S. and maybe the world.
Benepe sits on 76 boards. On summer nights and on busy beach weekends, he can hardly sleep for fear someone will drown. A born-and-bred New Yorker who grew up on the upper West Side, the commissioner worked as an Urban Ranger for the parks department. He knows firsthand what goes into making a park great. “No one comes to work at the Parks Department to get rich,” he says. “They come to help the city get better, to work outdoors and to make the environment better. That’s what makes these parks great, that and the citizens who use the parks and work to improve them as well.”
On a sunny Friday in late August, Benepe took the Daily News on a five-hour tour, showing us firsthand why New York City is a leader in park design and maintenance, and how city parks are directly tied to quality of life in emerging neighborhoods.
1. CONCRETE PLANT PARK
The Bronx River near Westchester Ave. and Bruckner Blvd.
Opened last year, Concrete Plant Park is a riverfront park built on the site of a former cement-mixing plant fully operational from the 1940s to 1987. The large red silos remain on site. It is one of the most modern examples of park construction, transforming industrial urban space to active neighborhood use. A family picnics nearby, while two friends play cards under a geometric mesh sail-like shading device. Across the river, an osprey plays in wild greenery. An Amtrak train speeds by near a point where a kayak and canoe launch site merges parkland with the river.
“The boundaries of New York City haven’t changed since 1856,” says Benepe. “The only way to add park space will be to reclaim the waterfront around the city and take over these industrial sites. In this case, these guys owed the city back taxes, so we were able to secure the land.” The 7-acre park cost $11.4 million to build, with $6.3 million coming from Bloomberg’s budget and $3.9 million more coming from a federal grant secured by U.S. Rep. Jose E. Serrano of the Bronx. The park is the latest link in the chain of parks along the Bronx River Greenway.
When completed, this greenway will form a 23-mile riverfront recreation space, stretching from Westchester County through the Bronx to the East River. It is by far the most ambitious park project in the country and, when finished, could revitalize the 30 or so neighborhoods near it. Headed by the Bronx River Alliance, the project already has 6.5 miles completed. “We took a degraded, grungy river and gave it back to the community,” says Linda Cox, executive director for the alliance, a private group working with the Parks Department to manage and complete the project. “Over time, you might see development surround these projects, but more importantly, it’s a sign that says to the community that anything is possible, and things can change. Neighborhoods like these – not just wealthy areas – deserve great parks, too.”
2. JACKIE ROBINSON PARK
Manhattan, Bradhurst & Edgecombe Aves., W. 145th to W. 155th Sts.
Highlighted by a 1936 city pool, bandshell, steep staircase and rows of benches under London plane trees, this park underwent a $2 million improvement, completed last September. Brick walls were repointed, the bandshell was restored, and dressing rooms and restrooms renovated and upgraded. Originally constructed under legendary parks commissioner Robert Moses, this park was built on a rocky cliff deemed undevelopable by real estate forces.
Land across the street, however, has recently been converted to condominiums and affordable housing, meaning the park has become a key amenity in drawing new residents. “We wanted Harlem to look as good as Park Ave.,” says Benepe. “Flowers and plants make a neighborhood feel good. You cannot have a livable neighborhood without green somewhere.” Good parks, says Benepe, also need good programming. In addition to the pool, the bandshell is the site of evening jazz events and a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. Yoga, ballet classes and an after-school program draw families. On this recent Friday, there are more maintenance workers than people. An older woman sits on a bench reading.
“This park used to be overrun by graffiti, the weeds were overgrown, and knuckleheads were always around doing no good,” says Benepe, who notes that city Councilman Robert Jackson contributed most of the funds for this park’s improvement. “Now a woman feels comfortable enough to come here alone. This park has a group of locals who contribute to its programming. They even report problems. Without public participation, these parks could not thrive.”
3. CROTONA PARK
Fulton Ave., Crotona Park North, South, East and the Bronx
Packed with groups barbecuing, kids playing, a regional tennis tournament and people fishing, the 127-acre Crotona Park is one of the most widely used community resources in the city. The park includes over 92% of the neighborhood’s total green space.
“I call this the Central Park of the Bronx,” says Benepe. “The owners of the Phipps House, a big local housing provider, donate money to this park.” A recent ecological renovation to the 3.3-acre Indian Lake saw a stone border stripped away to give the lake a natural shoreline. A bridge and stone amphitheater were added to the park, giving the landscape a pastoral quality like that of the Hudson Valley. Over 23 varieties of trees are in the park, and bigmouth bass and turtles live in the lake. Red-tail hawks have been spotted in the sky.
On this day, the Urban Park Rangers, a division of the Parks Department focusing on outdoor entertainment and education, are running a fishing program for kids, using bamboo poles and corn for bait. Adelaida Del Pilar became a ranger in 1987. The Puerto Rico-born Del Pilar lives in the Bronx and works outside every day, patrolling parks, handling animal rescues and leading educational tours for kids. She recently saw a black vulture in Pelham Bay Park. “I grew up in the country, so I feel comfortable outdoors,” says Del Pilar, who like other rangers completed a city-paid training program. “Every park offers something different about the history of New York and the environment. They have crayfish in Crotona Park. You have to be careful when the red-tail hawks eat rats. They can get very sick.”
On the way out of the park, past barbecues where tortillas, chicken and hot dogs grill under shady pin oak trees, the commissioner spots a Park Enforcement Patrolman (PEP) in a rush. A child has been missing for more than 45 minutes, but the patrolman has just located the toddler, who’s back now with the mother. “That’s my worst nightmare,” says Benepe. “Most of the time, this is the best job in New York. In a place where most of the population doesn’t have backyards or front yards, the life of the city takes place in its parks.”
4. P.S. 47 SCHOOLYARD PLAYGROUND SITE
1794 E. 172nd St., the Bronx
Opened in April, the playground at PS 47 is part of a program spearheaded by the mayor’s office to transform schoolyards into playgrounds. Each schoolyard receives $500,000 to $1 million in renovations. This park, a former slab of asphalt, now includes a state-of-the-art jungle gym, repaired basketball courts, an Astroturf soccer field and game tables. Over 150 schoolyards have been completed, and about 100 are now under construction.
“The idea is to take these schoolyards, which were closed after school and over the weekend, and give them a complete overhaul,” says Benepe, playing bongos at a musical-themed play area. “Overnight, we had 25% increase in the number of city playgrounds.” In this case, the Trust for Public Land handled the park changeover, working with school personnel and students to design the park. Game tables, a mural and mini-running-track came directly from those meetings. “They did a pretty nice job here,” says Daria Fall, 9, at the park with her twin sister and friends. “It’s great to be outside. If this park wasn’t here, we would be home messing up our brains watching TV. There was nothing here before. Just garbage and bad writing on the walls. It was so ugly.”
5. OCEAN BREEZE PARK AND TRACK AND FIELD FACILITY
Staten Island
Costing over $70 million, Ocean Breeze Park brings one of the finest public track-and-field facilities in the country to Staten Island.
Designed by city park designers working out of the Olmsted Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and Sage and Coombe Architects, the park blends award-winning building design with wetlands collect storm water. Paid for almost completely by the mayor’s capital budget, the park will hold the 135,000-square-foot track facility with its eight-lane track, two long-jump pits, pole-vault and high-jump areas, and two shot-put and throwing areas. The stands will hold 2,500 spectators.
Open to the public in 2013 as a citywide recreation center, it will cost only $50 per year to join. “It’s not even open yet, and it’s already won design awards,” says Benepe. “These kinds of parks keep New York at the center of leading park design for the entire world. How can you not be excited about living here with parks like this on the way?
Related Resources:
NY Daily News- Parks paradise: NYC spent $3 billion in eight years on urban oases
New York City Department of Parks & Recreation