The reservoir's historic structures & ecosystems are an opportunity to create a unique environmental education center for our children & their future.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Adrian Benepe in print

The following are some choice comments made by the NYC Commissioner of Parks & Recreation, Adrian Benepe, regarding Highland Park's Ridgewood Reservoir. In a couple of articles, he relied on a spokesperson to take the heat. Mr. Benepe was appointed commissioner in 2002.

On April 3, 2004, "The New York Times" published an article about budget problems halting the planting of trees in parts of the city. "Dispute Halts Tree Planting In Three Parts Of the City", by Diane Cardwell, brings to light an interesting fact about the lifespan of New York City trees.

''Hundreds of trees won't get planted, which is a bad thing, but the worst thing obviously is that the price will increase dramatically, which means we'll be planting fewer trees at higher costs,'' Mr. Benepe said.

The department has been planting from 7,000 to 10,000 trees a year citywide, he said, just ahead of the 7,000 or so trees that die. ''We were staying ahead of the dead-tree curve,'' he said. ''The bottom line is there will be more trees dying than replaced.''

Now that we know how quickly trees die in New York City, it begs the question, does that number includes trees that Mr. Benepe has removed to accommodate the demands of private interests in public parks?

When the Department of Environmental Protection handed over the deed to the Ridgewood Reservoir to parks, the Department of Park & Recreation released a statement on July 07, 2004.

Department of Environmental Protection To Turn Over 50 Acre Site Of Decommissioned Reservoir To Parks & Recreation

“It’s not everyday that we can celebrate the addition of over 50 acres to our network of City parkland,” said Commissioner Benepe. “We look forward to this land becoming a place for New Yorkers to recreate, relax, and enjoy the outdoors. In the meantime, it will be an informal nature sanctuary.”

Does that comment assume that New Yorkers are unable to "relax and enjoy the outdoors" in a "nature sanctuary"?

Lisa Colangelo of the New York Daily News broke the news of the parks department's acquisition of the reservoir on July 8th 2004. In the article "50 Acres Greener Ridgewood Reservoir Slated To Be Park Annex" Commissioner Benepe made his first public comments regarding the future of the reservoir's bog, lake and forests.

"This is a great gift to the people of New York City, the Parks Department and to the people of East New York and Ridgewood and Cypress Hills," said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

"As you can see, probably some it should remain in a natural state as a wildlife sanctuary, but there are some possibilities for ballfields and for a lot of other things."

Benepe said the city will work with the community to determine what is best for the park, but said some ballfields will almost certainly be part of that plan.

Notice that a decision for ballfields was already in place 4 years ago and that the commissioner's plan seems to trump any future community input.

On July 8, 2004 an article was published in New York Newsday entitled "Mayor Gives Birth To New Park", by Dan Janison. The commissioner uses language that sounds like he wants to persuade the community to his idea, not the other way around.

"The work remains ahead, to figure out how best to program it, and figure out how make it into great parks," Benepe said. "Probably some of it will remain in its natural state as a wildlife sanctuary. But there are some possibilities for ballfields and for a lot of other things depending on what we can do with the communities."

Access on foot now involves getting past a trash-strewn wooded area that was being cleaned and up broken stone steps that once led to a mainstay of the 19th century water system in the once separate city of Brooklyn. New York City decommissioned the last of 3 basins in the reservoir more than a decade ago, and it has been a fenced-off wetlands since.

It has been 4 years since that statement and the "broken stone steps" for this historically significant site are still very much broken.

The New York Times looked at the Ridgewood Reservoir from a different perspective in their July 8, 2004 article, "As Old Reservoir Becomes a Park, a Camper Gets an Eviction Notice", by Corey Kilgannon. of the last wildernesses of New York City, was to become a city park. ''Today is Christmas in July,'' [Benepe] said. He said that the property would remain ''an informal nature sanctuary'' for now, and that department officials would evaluate it and seek community comment and was likely to consider possible uses like ball fields, recreational areas and bike and jogging paths.

''Probably some of it should remain in its natural state,'' [Benepe] said.

The basins are roughly 40 feet deep with steep sloping sides and have a wide variety of animal and plant life.

Note that the reservoir is already encircled by a 1 mile jogging path.

It was nearly one year after the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation's celebration at the edge of the Ridgewood Reservoir in Highland Park that any public reference to the area resurfaced. It was in the revealing July 6, 2005 New York Times article, "Parks Even the Parks Dept. Won't Claim", by Timothy Williams.

"That park is not a park," Mr. Benepe said, referring to University Woods. [...] He added, "Just because something is in our inventory doesn't mean it's worth taking care of."

Mr. Benepe bristles at the suggestion that the Parks Department favors certain areas of the city over others. "The reality is that across the city in every neighborhood, the parks are better," he said. And while he says there is no formal two-tier system when it comes to maintaining city parks, he acknowledges that some are better cared for than others.

Just how many of the city's 1,700 public parks, playgrounds and recreation facilities are not actively maintained is not clear, but Mr. Benepe said that a limited number of city parks would "never be great parks" because they are on land unsuitable to be developed as parkland, or because they are in neighborhoods that are no longer significantly residential.

[...] Despite their unkempt pockets, some parks, like Aqueduct Walk Park in the Bronx, are heavily used. Many others, however, are similar to University Woods, and attract few visitors. Large swaths of Highbridge and Fort Washington Parks in Upper Manhattan, Soundview, Ferry Point and Pelham Bay Parks in the Bronx, Highland Park on the Brooklyn-Queens border and Idlewild Park in Queens, among others, have been designated natural areas by the Parks Department, to preserve wetlands and other natural habitats. Such areas require less rigorous maintenance than others. Some of these are now impassable for all but the most determined parkgoer due to overgrown trails, poison ivy, homeless encampments and garbage. Abandoned cars and boats have been left in some of the parks.

What these parks have in common is that they rely almost exclusively on city money, while the city's best-maintained parks - Central Park, Bryant Park and Prospect Park among them - are managed in part by private conservancies that raise money and hire workers independent of the Parks Department. The neglected parks also lack the community support and involvement present in the neighborhoods around the city's most successful green spaces.

[...] "This is a big system and you can't address every little problem," he said. Mr. Benepe said a lack of resources was not an issue either. "The challenge is how to spend all the money we've been given," he said.

In all, the Parks Department's 28,800 acres take up about 14 percent of the total land mass in the city's five boroughs. About 12,000 acres of parkland have been designated natural areas, though some, like Central Park's Ramble, are well maintained and free of the trash and invasive species that plague the natural areas of other parks.

Mr. Benepe, who expressed both skepticism and surprise at the park's condition when told about it, said the city's plan was: "Let nature take its course." "Trees are growing, insects are buzzing, oxygen is being produced, and there's nothing wrong with that," he said.

It wasn't until 2007 that the future of Highland Park's Ridgewood Reservoir was mentioned by some New York newspapers. The New York Sun, on August 2, 2007 published the article, "Brooklyn Park To Undergo $40 Million Renovation", by Tessa Frissora.

In a statement yesterday, the mayor said he was committed to ensuring every New Yorker lives within a 10-minute walk of a park or open space. "Completing these regional destination parks in all five boroughs will make them the jewels of our park system and increase usability and access for thousands of New Yorkers," he said.

"Parks like Dreier-Offerman have shown extraordinary recreational potential for years. Thanks to PlaNYC, the new design for Dreier-Offerman will greatly enhance the opportunities for recreation and the quality of life for residents of south Brooklyn," the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, said.

Other parks slated for redevelopment include Highbridge in Manhattan and the Bronx, Soundview Park in the Bronx, Fort Washington Park in Manhattan, Highland Park Reservoir and Rockaway Beach in Queens, and Ocean Breeze Park in Staten Island.

By October, community activists concerned about the future of Ridgewood Reservoir began getting the attention of the media. New York Daily News, on October 21, 2007, published "Forest Fans Howl Over Plans To Raze 20 Acres In Ridgewood Reservoir", by John Lauinger.

Bring On The Bulldozers!

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe delivered a shock to nature lovers and community activists last week when he said the city is planning to level more than 20 acres of dense forest in Ridgewood Reservoir to make way for recreational facilities, attendees of the meeting said.

The brief disclosure came at an under-the-radar meeting at the Parks Department's Manhattan headquarters in which Benepe highlighted some of the $400 (sic) million in park upgrades proposed in Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC initiative.

The thick forests that now cover most of the terrain provide ideal habitat for many species of wildlife - in particular, more than 120 species of migratory birds, some of which are rarely found nesting in the city.

[...] Benepe told the Daily News on Friday that the $46 million plan is not a "done deal" - but then spent several minutes explaining why recreational facilities are needed at the site. "We have a very strong obligation to provide sports and recreational facilities so that kids can get exercise and avoid problems like diabetes and heart disease," he said.

[...] Benepe said the city has a shortage of "first-rate" recreational facilities, and said Queens is "blessed with thousands of acres of parkland that is mostly natural."

But community activists said replacing more than 20 acres of forest with AstroTurf sports fields contradicts Bloomberg's much-publicized plan to plant a million trees in the city by 2030.

"It's very hypocritical for them, on their own property, to cut down thousands of trees and then boast about how they're planting trees on the sidewalk, which they're making residents pay for," said Christina Wilkinson, president of the Newtown Historical Society.

Benepe strongly disagreed.

"These are really accidental landscapes that have grown up out of lack of maintenance and lack of use," he said.

Neither Benepe nor the Daily News pointed out that Highland Park, which surrounds Ridgewood Reservoir, is already well within the Mayor's "10-minute walk to a park" for several neighborhoods. Highland Park currently contains 6 baseball fields, 13 tennis courts, 2 playgrounds, 1 soccer field, handball courts, 12 basketball courts, picnic areas, a children's garden and a running track...all of which are poorly maintained.

Less than a week later, on October 25th, Metro New York printed the article "City wants to plant 1M trees, but...", by Amy Zimmer. Mr. Benepe wasn't directly quoted in the article, but he had a spokeswoman explain his position.

The Bloomberg administration wants 1 million trees planted over the next 10 years as part of its long-term mission to improve the environment. But many New Yorkers want to know what the city is doing to save existing trees.

They’re worried possible Parks Dept. plans to raze 20-acres of dense forest at the 50-acre Ridgewood Reservoir to put down artificial turf ballfields is antithetical to the eco-friendly agenda.

[... ] Plans haven’t been finalized yet, the Parks Dept. said, and completed designs will be presented to community boards in Brooklyn and Queens, since the park sits on the border.

“Among the many goals of PlaNYC, we are looking to expand recreational opportunities for both children and adults and are investigating the possibility of using one of the three basins for recreation,” Parks spokeswoman Abigail Lootens wrote in an e-mail.

[...] Queens Councilman Tony Avella will tour the park on Sunday.

“Why not spend the money where there are opportunities for ball fields where you don’t need to destroy natural areas?” asked Avella. “What [Mayor Michael Bloomberg] says is different from what the agencies are doing.”

The Times Newsweekly also came out with an article about the Ridgewood Reservoir on October 25th. Journalist Robert Pozarycki penned, "From Trees To Timber? Parks Dept. Mulls Plan For Athletic Fields At Reservoir". Once again, Mr. Benepe used a "spokesperson" to reply to the journalist's questions.

Though plans for a renovated Ridgewood Reservoir remain in design, the Department of Parks and Recreation is reportedly considering a plan to clear one of the basin’s three chambers to make way for numerous athletic fields.

A spokesperson for the Parks Department informed the Times Newsweekly that the agency is deliberating a proposal to bring “active recreation” such as baseball and football fields to the new 50-acre park that is being created on the reservoir site straddling the Brooklyn/Queens border.

[...] The spokesperson cautioned that “nothing is set in stone,” adding that the department continues to look at all input received during several listening sessions held in Queens and Brooklyn on the site. The representative noted that the department has determined there is “still an interest in preserving a reservoir” while adding other activities.

[...] After the reservoir was taken completely out of the water system by the Department of Environmental Protection in 1989, the land remained dormant through 2004, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed an agreement that transferred the 50-acre property from the DEP to the Parks Department. By then, the area had evolved into a natural wetland and habitat.

By the time journalist Emily Brady of The New York Times wrote her November 25, 2007 article, "Amid the Willows and Chickadees, Bird-Watchers Spot a Red Flag", Mr. Benepe had decided that cutting down trees was his "moral obligation".

[...] But the reservoir, which is nestled within Highland Park, is also one of eight areas designated for conversion to parkland under Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to have a park within 10 minutes of every New York residence by 2030.

For his part, the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, said that although the city has allocated $50 million to improve Highland Park and incorporate the Ridgewood Reservoir into it, construction and design plans are not final. “The bulldozers aren’t warming up,” he said.

But Mr. Benepe did say that “some small portion” of the Ridgewood Reservoir area, probably about 30 percent, will be used for recreation. “Any time you build a park, especially in an area that is overgrown, you have to remove some trees,” he said.

Mr. Benepe also emphasized what he described as his “moral obligation” to provide New Yorkers with space for recreation, especially children who suffer from a lack of exercise, and the need to balance the needs of a community.

Note the commissioner's clever twisting of the truth with respect to the $50 million. Our group was told in a face to face discussion with the Queens Commissioner of Parks, Dorothy Lewandowski, that "None of the money allocated to the reservoir project can be spent outside the reservoir on Highland Park."

December 20, 2007 appears to be the last time the commissioner's plans for the reservoir were referenced by the mainstream media. The following is from the Queens Chronicle article "City Mulls Three Options For Ridgewood Reservoir", by Colin Gustafson.

Dense foliage and vegetation have sprouted in the Ridgewood Reservoir, creating a lush habitat for migratory birds and some endangered plant species.

City officials say they’re still mulling the possibility of axing acres of lush vegetation in the Ridgewood Reservoir in order to clear space for new athletic facilities.

[...] Now, officials from the Department of Parks and Recreation are considering clear-cutting a portion of the third and largest basin under one of three options for redeveloping the 50-acre reservoir.

[...] At the reservoir, the most extreme development option calls for transforming the third basin — home to dense forest and vernal marshland — into an “active recreation center,” replete with running tracks, soccer fields and cricket courts, officials said.

A second option would preserve much of the reservoir as a “naturalistic park” with some outdoor “adventure type recreation,” according to Parks Department spokeswoman Abigail Lootens.

[...] Not to worry, Parks officials assured this week. “The portion where we would possibly remove trees is of lower habitat value because it hosts many non-native trees,” Lootens explained. “We believe this will not displace or harm the bird or plant populations.”

However, even if the wildlife remains out of harm’s way, preservationists still believe the idea of wiping out as much as 20 acres of forest runs counter to one of the mayor’s key reasons for refurbishing Highland Park: to make trees, grass and others green space more accessible to the public.

Last month, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe argued in favor of building new athletic space, arguing that Queens is home to plenty of parkland already, but suffers from a shortage of recreational opportunities.

He believes the creation of new public athletic spaces at the reservoir will help combat pervasive health problems, like heart disease, obesity and diabetes, especially among children.

Despite the parks departments implied "leave it all alone" third option, they have made it very clear that they still intend to breach a significant section of the western basin's retaining wall. That process would include the removal of at least 60 mature trees that are growing outside of the reservoir.

Commissioner Benepe's only recent public statements about the future of the reservoir came in the form of an op-ed reply to William Thompson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s piece in the New York Times. You can read that statement and my comments here.

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