Last night I attended what was billed as "Community Listening Sessions Regarding Future Plans for the Ridgewood Reservoirs". It was hosted by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Heidi and I signed up for the meeting assuming that it would be a group of people listening to the parks department describe what they had in store for the reservoir and its surroundings. What transpired was, well, different. The response by the public to the meeting was a pleasant surprise.
Upon our arrival we were asked to sign in and were assigned a color-coded name tag. It was explained that, like the name tags at a wedding reception, the colors were associated with a table where we would sit. Each table was set-up with:
- a large topographic map of the property
- a satellite image centered on the reservoir with labels of recreational facilities within a 1/2 mile radius
- questionnaires for participants
- a printout of a Powerpoint presentation (the projector was broken)
- a large easel pad
- several legal pads and pens
- an 11" x 17" satellite image of the reservoir
- cardboard cut-outs of baseball fields, running tracks, tennis courts, parking lot, basketball courts, cricket field, etc., scaled to the large topographic map
It should be pointed out that the image with the 1/2 mile radius of current recreational areas was inaccurate. It showed far less than actually exists. To see a map of any type of recreational areas near the reservoir Oasis NYC has a great mapping system.
Each table had an assigned "facilitator". Park administrator, Debbie Kuha, was the person organizing the process at my table, the "Red Team". People who signed up for the event were randomly assigned a color. Heidi and I ended up at separate tables, but Al Ott and I were at a table together. Also present at our table was Tom Dowd, president of the Ridgewood Homeowner's Association and District Director Tony Forman (representing the office of Congressman Ed Towns). There was one other gentleman at our table, but I can't remember his name (some of the name badges were difficult to read). I thought someone said that he represented the office of New York State Senator Serphin R. Maltese. If I am incorrect, I apologize. Mark Morrison, the president of the company who "won the design competition" looked over our shoulders and participated in the discussion for about 10 minutes. It struck me as a little odd that the department of parks would have already chosen a company to design a facility for a project that was still taking input from the community. The city, allegedly, hadn't even made any decision on the reservoir's future.
A brief introduction about the project was given by Queens Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski. She described an elaborate project that was "on the fast track" to breaking ground. Unfortunately, she had to leave for another event and turned over the podium to Kim Fallon of capital projects. To make a long story as short as possible, we were advised that $50 million had been allocated for the development of an active sports facility at the reservoir. The people who signed up for the meeting were divided into 5 teams and were being asked to design, what we thought, would be an appropriate facility. Kim encouraged us to "think outside the box".
From the onset of our team's "brainstorming" session, it seemed like Ms. Kua was more interested in placing the activities cut-outs into the basin areas on the map, than listening to our concerns. Tom Dowd began by expressing his opinion that the nature of the area should be protected. Both Al and I agreed, but I thought that a school for Urban Conservation and Research should be built at the edge of the reservoir. I think that it is a unique opportunity to create a one-of-a-kind learning institution. My gut feeling was that our facilitator wanted us to feel obligated to use the carefully constructed cardboard cut-outs to fill up the space within the basins.
Here is a brief summary of each team's presentation at the end of the brainstorming session.
They decided not to use any of the active facility icons as there are "already plenty in the surrounding area". Their focus was on passive recreation, a nature center and highlighting some of the areas rich history. The existing running path around the perimeter should be widened and small exercise areas added along the route.
This team began by stating that whatever activities occur in one basin will affect the nature in the others. They continued with the notion that sports and nature are competing concepts. It was the second team to propose the construction of a nature center. For sports activities they suggested a skateboard area as there aren't any in the surrounding neighborhoods. Half of Basin 3 would be left untouched and Basins 1 & 2 completely untouched. Given the history of the area they also suggested that a waterworks museum be created.
For the third time a group began their presentation by agreeing that it should be left as unspoiled as possible. There should be a nature center, possibly elevated walkways above the basins so people can observe the wildlife from above the canopy. Nothing should be filled in. The old pumps should be restored and a small cafe added in one of the old buildings. If there is any development it should be in Basin 1. They made it very clear that they wanted the nature preserved.
No longer a surprise, this team began their presentation by stating that the nature of the area was very important. Three out of their six members thought it should not be developed at all. They didn't think that extra parking should be created. If anything, they should expand the existing lot. Because of their concern for the existing natural habitat they recommended that nothing be done without a comprehensive study of each basin. There should be an expansion of the existing green-way into the area and a visitors center built. The old pump house should be restored as an environmental center. Invasive plant species should be removed and monitored with a nursery created to grow plants that would replace the invasives.
The final team was ours, the Red Team. Our presenter, who was chosen by the facilitator, was Tom Dowd. At the start of the discussions Tom surprised Al and myself by talking about the importance of the area's nature and history, although he did have a desire to see an indoor swimming installed in part of Basin 3 ("there are only 11 throughout the city"). He seemed a bit nervous during his presentation and who wouldn't have been, I couldn't have stood up in front of that audience. Through no fault of his own, he basically just read down a list of items that were suggested, primarily, by the facilitator. Towards the end of his speech he remembered all of the conservation points and quickly read through a few.
As the last presenters, the Red Team didn't have the rousing conclusion that would have had a big impact. But, ultimately, it wasn't a problem, because Al decided to address the room from his chair at our table. He spoke about the special qualities of the existing habitat and the common misconception that preserving green spaces is an "us versus the birds" argument. To paraphrase his much more eloquent discourse, "Nature isn't just here for the birds, it's also here for people."
Al is a big man with a commanding voice. While he was talking I looked around the room at the expressions on people's faces. He projected a powerful tone of conviction and honesty that held the room's attention. His opinion was so well received that the room spontaneously broke out in applause.
I was very pessimistic going into the meeting. In politics, despite appearances, sometimes the outcome is preordained. In fact, I found out after the meeting, that there were two parks department employees on one of the teams who were pushing for development. My feeling was that the city would destroy the reservoir's habitats, no matter what happened at any public meetings. Tonight I realized there were more voices speaking for about the intrinsic value of natural habitats than I ever expected. The Department of Parks and Recreation wants to create a world class destination in Ridgewood, what they don't realize is that it already exists. Exploiting its developing habitats as a sanctuary, for both man and animal, and as a teaching facility would bring far more to the entire city than a few sports fields.