New Yorkers for Parks Releases Playground Utilization Study

Monday, December 16, 2013

In an era of budget constraints, how can the Parks Department most effectively allocate limited public dollars?

Answering that question requires tracking visitor patterns across the park system. In a new research brief, Understanding Playground Utilization, New Yorkers for Parks partnered with New York University to test a simple methodology for counting users – specifically, in ten playgrounds across New York City, across the four seasons – without expending significant staff resources.

“To make the most of the Parks Department’s budget, it’s imperative we understand how, where and when New Yorkers use their open spaces, and target funds accordingly,” said Holly Leicht, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks. “It’s a daunting task to count users of the city’s extensive network of 1,900 parks, but we’ve demonstrated a way to do it economically and effectively, particularly in small spaces. And doing so will provide data that helps the department deploy staff and budget dollars more efficiently, and track the effectiveness of new open space initiatives.”

In addition to a discussion of methodology and potential applications, the brief presents several findings about playground use in New York City, based on the NYU research team’s interviews with adults in ten playgrounds throughout the five boroughs.

There are three main findings:

·    Playgrounds are vital neighborhood resources.

Of adults interviewed:

79% use the playground at least once a week
75% live in the neighborhood in which the playground resides
75% walk to the playground

Of caretakers interviewed:

2/3 reported that the playground is the primary place their child plays outdoors

·    Neighborhood playgrounds are particularly important assets for adults and children from lower-income households.

Adults from households earning more than $80,000 per year have approximately half the odds of reporting frequent playground use compared to adults from households earning $20,000 a year or less.

Compared to lower income caretakers, those earning more than $60,000 per year have lower odds of stating that the playground is the main place their children play outdoors.

·    There are large disparities in users’ assessments of playground upkeep and personal safety.

"Measuring utilization of parks and playgrounds throughout the city is an important part of managing these public resources,” said Diana Silver, Assistant Professor of Public Health at NYU, who led the research team. “This study demonstrates that it's possible to do this, and that such information could be used as part of performance benchmarks for the Parks Department and other agencies that manage open space. Asking users what concerns or issues they have with safety, maintenance and programming as you measure utilization also gives the City vital information about how these resources can be improved. Our study also reveals that the Department of Parks and Recreation needs support from other agencies to succeed in making the sure that city residents feel safe and secure in using and traveling to these playgrounds."

Tracking Playground Utilization was made possible by generous contributions from the Booth Ferris Foundation, the J.M Kaplan Fund and The Merck Family Fund.

You can read more about the project in this story from last Tuesday on The Wall Street Journal’s Metropolis blog.

One Year Later, Beleaguered Park’s Prospects Looking Up

Monday, December 16, 2013

Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

One year ago, the long-beleaguered Flushing Meadows Corona Park faced an uncertain future.

Not only was the park inadequately maintained, as it had been for years, but three different development projects proposed in or near the park loomed large.

Today, thanks to effective advocacy by New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras and local groups like the Fairness Coalition of Queens and the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Conservancy, prospects for the park’s future appear brighter than many expected a year ago.

What was our role in helping that happen?

Last winter, the public review process began for the first of the three proposed projects, a 0.68-acre expansion the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center along a park access road.

While the hearings were officially focused on that project, the specter of all three proposals, understandably, was in the air. A consistent message was delivered by community advocates:  for too long, the Tennis Association had turned its back on park-users and the surrounding community.

Some opposed the project outright; others urged a more collaborative partnership between the USTA and its neighbors, in which the tennis association would invest in the park’s maintenance and improvement to mitigate the impacts of its growth. As the time neared for the City Council to weigh in on the proposal, it became clear that this latter approach could only be considered if parties on all sides had a reliable estimate of how much funding would be required to bring the park up to par.

“I needed to avoid using a random number” in negotiating a financial contribution to the park, Ferreras told The New York Times last month in an illuminating story about her negotiations with the City and the USTA.

So NY4P commissioned an independent study to estimate the park's current maintenance budget and the cost of upgrading it to the national standard for park care. Thanks to generous funding from the Altman Foundation, J.M. Kaplan Fund, and New York Community Trust, we were able to hire ETM Associates, the leading national expert in park maintenance cost estimating, to conduct the analysis. The firm has done similar analyses for parks worldwide, from Taiwan to London to Houston, as well as many in New York City.

The study estimated that maintaining Flushing Meadows Corona Park at the national standard would require about $2.4 million a year more than the City currently spends on its maintenance. And that data proved critical in helping all parties reach agreement on the amount the USTA will commit to the park annually for 23 years.

The same Times article tells the story of how the negotiations unfolded:

With its expansion to 42 acres with leased parkland from the city, the [tennis] association put $8 million into a fund for the park. “The association thought it would use the same calculator” for the portion of land, 0.68 acres, Ms. Ferreras remembered. “I said, ‘Absolutely not; there’s a new negotiator in town.' ”

Her opening “ask,” as she put it, for the new park alliance, was $18 million. The tennis association countered with $1 million. They met at $10 million.

A similar process unfolded this fall during final negotiations between Ferreras and the developers of the Willets West Mall, to be built on the Mets’ Citi Field parking lot, a space that was alienated – i.e., legally approved for private use – decades ago, but is on former parkland adjacent to the park. NY4P did not take a stance on the pros or cons of the overall development, but we advocated strongly that if the project was approved, an ongoing commitment by the development team to help fund park maintenance was essential.

When the New York City Council voted on October 9 to approve the project, the agreement included a commitment from the Queens Development Group, a partnership between Sterling Equities and The Related Companies, of $15.5 million for the park. Once again, the maintenance study that we commissioned proved to be a guiding force in the negotiations.

All said, Council Member Julissa Ferreras secured more than $25 million in private funds that will be dedicated to much-needed capital projects and ongoing maintenance and programming for the next 25 years, and no publicly usable parkland was lost.  (The USTA returned more than an acre of parkland to the Parks Department in exchange for the 0.68 acre alienated for its expansion.)

These funds will also help launch a new nonprofit, the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Alliance, that the Council Member is working with the Parks Department to establish for the ongoing stewardship of the park.  The alliance will raise additional private funding for the park, support volunteerism and programming that engages the community, and increase fiscal transparency on park-related decisions.

The third proposed project, a professional soccer stadium slated for at least 10 acres in the heart of the park, was roundly opposed by community and park advocates alike, including NY4P.  As we wrote in an Op-Ed in the Daily News last May, a stadium would “alter the nature of the park altogether.” The new Major League Soccer team took notice and are reportedly working on a deal to build a stadium in the Bronx instead.

Lastly, but not insignificantly, the park has taken center stage in an ongoing, citywide discussion about park equity both among advocates and the press – a discussion that’s sure to play a central role in the de Blasio’s administration’s park policy.

There’s no doubt that the profile of Flushing Meadows Corona Park has been raised.  What started as a crisis for the beloved park – the threat of more privatization without any benefit to park-users – has become an opportunity that will transform the park into a jewel in the city’s park system, thanks to the advocacy of Council Member Ferreras, a coalition of local organizations and residents, and New Yorkers for Parks.

Improving Capital Projects in NYC Parks

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Long-awaited construction of a promenade & warf along the Queensbridge Park seawall began last May.

Rents in New York City may be too damn high, but according to many park advocates and elected officials, the Parks Department's process for building capital projects is too damn slow.
Last week’s New York City Council oversight hearing on capital projects provided a timely opportunity to discuss some of the reasons the process is so inefficient, and possible ways of improving it.
Council Members often complain about creeping timelines and escalating costs for completing capital projects in city parks.  In response, NY4P is currently undertaking an in-depth study of the capital project process – from preliminary cost estimation through design and construction – for a number of City agencies (including Parks) to identify best practices as well as pitfalls and constraints. Our goal is to make recommendations for improving the Parks Department’s – and perhaps other agencies’ – capital project process.
Though this report won’t be completed until early 2014, at last week's hearing, NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht highlighted what we believe is the single biggest impediment to efficiency in Parks Department capital projects: the fact that most parks projects that cost $3 million or less - which is the majority of the department's projects - are funded through capital allocations from Council Members and Borough Presidents, rather than with Mayoral funding. Mayor Bloomberg has provided generously to large park projects, but most smaller projects – like a playground renovation or a new dog run – are funded by the local Council Member or Borough President, with their annual discretionary capital funds.  As one government veteran described it to us, “The capital budget dance between the Administration and the Council occurs almost entirely around parks, libraries and cultural institutions. And all three pay a price.”
One way to avoid this dance would be for Mayor-elect de Blasio to reinstate a robust discretionary capital budget for the Parks Department, as NY4P calls for in our Parks Platform 2013. The Bloomberg Administration has invested heavily in parks, but those funds have primarily been allocated to the Parks Department for specific projects. Without increasing the department’s overall capital budget, the next administration could allocate the same amount of capital funds annually to Parks but make the funding more flexible so that department staff with first-hand knowledge about parks in all five boroughs can plan their pipeline of projects based on greatest need and target their budget accordingly.  We believe giving the Parks Department a discretionary capital budget would go a long way toward addressing disparate conditions among parks citywide.
But why is the current approach to funding most park capital projects so problematic? First, relying on Council Members and Borough Presidents for park funding politicizes the process. Staff from Parks’ borough offices have to negotiate with community boards and elected officials to get needed projects on their priority lists and to convince them to provide funding for projects that may not always align with their interests. Should a playground not be renovated because it happens to fall in the district of a Council Member for whom parks aren’t a top priority, or who has a slew of other important competing demands? A former Council Member who represented the Upper East Side told us that he could allocate funds to upgrade the parks in his district every couple years because he didn’t represent a high-need area. But his colleagues in the South Bronx and Brownsville didn’t have that option, because every dollar of their discretionary budgets was in demand just to augment basic services.
Even if a project has a Council sponsor, however, the process is fraught. Because Council Members’ annual discretionary budgets are relatively small, they understandably want to spread funding among multiple deserving projects, so it generally takes several budget cycles before all the funding for a single park project is allocated. So, if a project is estimated to cost $2 million, a Council Member may allocate $500,000 toward it over the course of four years. But that project cannot even begin design until all the funds to complete it are in place – so right there, you’ve lost four years. And by the time you do start design four years hence, chances are good the cost of the project has increased, necessitating a quest for additional funds.
What’s more, because every single project is individually funded, each project has its own funding line and requires its own review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Mayor's Office of Contracts, the Public Design Commission, and multiple other agencies, depending on the project. By comparison, consider how the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) projects are funded. DEP submits a Certificate to Proceed to OMB for a multi-million dollar contract for, say, sewer work in Queens. The money for that work comes from the Mayor’s budget and is typically approved in one fell swoop by OMB. DEP can then draw down on that full amount as needed, without significant additional review for each individual project within the approved contract amount. This saves a tremendous amount of time, not to mention inter-agency headaches.
The current mechanism for funding park projects is certainly not the only area for improvement in the capital process, but we highlighted it at this hearing because it’s an area that the City Council can directly influence. NY4P hopes to work with the Council and the new administration to explore ways to alleviate some of the administrative hurdles inherent in the current capital process.
Changing the way anything is done in government – particularly when it involves money – is not easy, but there is widespread consensus that placing the responsibility for funding entire capital projects on Council Members and Borough Presidents is not producing cost-effective or timely capital projects.
With a new administration poised to take office for the first time in 12 years, now is the time to find innovative ways to reform that system - ideally starting with giving the Parks Department its own, flexible capital budget that can be targeted toward those parks most in need. 

Read more about the pitfalls of the current capital funding structure in this New York Times story from last June.

Park Equity Debated at Talking Transition Event

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Left to right: Joe McKellar, Adrian Benepe, Holly Leicht, Tupper Thomas, Sen. Dan Squadron

How can the de Blasio administration create a more equitable parks system?

That was the topic of a New Yorkers for Parks forum at the “Talking Transition” tent in SoHo last Thursday. NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht hosted the 90-minute event, conversing - and at times debating - with a range of park experts. Leicht first spoke with former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe about the department’s need for a discretionary capital budget, as well as the idea of expanding its current training program for temporary maintenance workers into a more robust permanent jobs initiative that would benefit both the workers and NYC’s park system.  She next interviewed Joe McKellar, Executive Director of Faith in New York, about why his organization joined with other Queens groups to form the Fairness Coalition of Queens to oppose a Major League Soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.  Finally, Leicht engaged with Tupper Thomas, founder of Prospect Park Alliance and former co-chair of City Parks Alliance, and State Senator Daniel Squadron about their views on public-private partnerships – commonly called “conservancies” – for parks.  Thomas and Leicht challenged Squadron on the bill he introduced last session that would require non-profits with annual operating budgets of $5 million or more to commit 20 percent of their budgets to a citywide fund for underserved parks.

The full 90-minute discussion is available on video here (just scroll down a bit to find our event).

“Talking Transition”
was a two-week initiative sponsored by a coalition of NYC foundations, aimed at engaging the public in the Mayoral transition. It was structured as an open conversation about the future of New York City, with the goal of transforming the transition process between Election Day and the Inauguration into an opportunity for New Yorkers to make their voices heard.


For more information on New Yorkers for Parks' priorities for the de Blasio Administration, please see our Parks Platform 2013, a set of ten policy proposals developed after hearing from hundreds of New Yorkers at a town hall meeting and outreach meetings in each borough.

Event participants:

Adrian Benepe is senior vice president and director of city park development at The Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation organization. Earlier, Adrian served as New York City Park Commissioner for 11 years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, during which he oversaw a major expansion of the city’s park system, including restoring historic parks such as Central Park and Battery Park, adding 730 acres of new parkland including Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the High Line, and laying the groundwork for an additional 2,000 acres of parkland within the city. Prior to becoming Commissioner, Benepe held numerous positions in the Parks Department, including director of art and antiquities, director of natural resources and horticulture, operations coordinator, and director of public information. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Middlebury College, Benepe holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, where he was awarded a Pulitzer Fellowship.

Joseph McKellar is the Executive Director of Faith in New York (formerly Queens Congregations United for Action), a growing interfaith, multicultural federation of 53 congregations representing 60,000 families in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan that advocates for excellent public schools, violence-free neighborhoods, access to good jobs, adequate and affordable health care, decent housing for all, and where people of all backgrounds can fully participate in economic and civic life. Faith in New York is a member of the Fairness Coalition of Queens,  an umbrella organization of Queens nonprofits and advocates opposed to the overdevelopment of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Earlier, McKellar was a community organizer in San Diego. Joseph graduated from the University of San Diego.

Tupper Thomas retired in February 2011 after 30 years as President of the Prospect Park Alliance and Administrator of Prospect Park, the 580-acre flagship park of Brooklyn.  In 1980 Tupper was hired as the Park’s first Administrator. She was responsible for the ongoing operation of the Park, its multimillion-dollar restoration, special events, public information, fundraising and services for Park visitors. The Prospect Park Alliance was formed in 1987 to revive, enrich, restore and preserve Prospect Park in partnership with the City of New York, with Tupper as its founding President. Tupper is the founder, former Co-Chair and current board member of City Parks Alliance, a national organization that advocates for parks. She has received numerous awards and has been a guest speaker for parks groups throughout the United States and abroad. She has a master’s degree in Urban Planning from Pratt Institute.

Daniel Squadron is serving his third term representing New York's 26th Senate District, which includes Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. First elected in November 2008 at the age of 28, his work has centered on issues such as affordable housing; job growth; open space protection; improved transit; and pedestrian safety. Prior to joining the State Senate, Senator Squadron served as a top aide to U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. Senator Squadron graduated from Yale University and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.

About host Holly Leicht:

Holly Leicht is the Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks, the city’s independent research-based advocacy organization championing quality parks and open spaces for all New Yorkers in all neighborhoods.  Before joining NY4P in 2011, she served as Deputy Commissioner for Development at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), where she oversaw Mayor Bloomberg’s New Housing Marketplace Plan to build and preserve 165,000 units of housing.  At HPD, Holly spearheaded an innovative juried competition in partnership with the American Institute of Architects which resulted in Via Verde, a signature affordable housing project that has won awards for its design and sustainability, and was actively involved in finding a balance between affordable housing and community gardens on City-owned land, including creating three new urban farms.  Prior to HPD, she was Director of Planning for offsite projects at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and spent five years at the Municipal Art Society, first as in-house counsel and then as Director of Design, Planning and Advocacy. She led MAS’ efforts to preserve threatened community gardens and co-directed Imagine New York, engaging thousands of people in thinking about and discussing the future of the World Trade Center site and New York's neighborhoods after September 11th. She graduated magna cum laude from Yale College and cum laude from Northwestern University School of Law.


Join NY4P in #GivingTuesday!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

On Tuesday, December 3rd, New Yorkers for Parks is joining a national movement to celebrate giving: a day when charities, individuals, families, businesses, community centers, students, retailers, and others come together for #GivingTuesday to encourage more, better and smarter giving during the holiday season.

Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, two of the biggest shopping days of the year, #GivingTuesday is a day to give, rather than spend. Last year more than 100,000 people participated.

Donate, spread the word, volunteer for groups you care about, and encourage your friends to get involved. 

Click here to learn more about the movement.

Make a gift to support NY4P as part of #GivingTuesday.

“Like” us on Facebook to keep up with other ways you can be part of #GivingTuesday.

One Year After Sandy: Coming Home in Sheepshead Bay

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The storm rushed in off Sheepshead Bay, flooding the venerable restaurant row along Emmons Avenue. Up to 18 feet of water, and as many as six blocks inland, over the Belt Parkway, all the way to Avenue X.
Steve Barrison watched from a second story window at home with his father, Earl, as the water overtook the south Brooklyn neighborhood the family has called home for three generations.
“Like Niagara Falls flowing over the highway,” he said.
On Batchelder Street, near the bay, Carole Shanahan’s nearly 100-year-old bungalow, where she grew up and returned to live as an adult, was filled with five feet of water. She fled to higher ground, a friend’s house in Bay Ridge. After the entire house had been gutted and de-molded three times, she moved back in August. Her heat and kitchen sink were finally reinstalled two weeks ago.
“The whole thing is still a blur,” she said.
On nearby Stanton Road, she said, many still haven’t returned.
Hundreds of businesses were closed, and a quarter of them remain shuttered, said Barrison, who has served as president of the Bay Improvement Group (BIG), since founding it 21 years ago. He describes it as "a broad coalition of residents, businesses, community groups, and leaders dedicated to the future preservation and planning of Sheepshead Bay, and advocating for the main streets."

Those approaching the neighborhood on the B and Q lines rumble into Sheepshead Bay station. On the eastern side of the tracks is a lawn, at Voorhies Avenue, one of three NYC Department of Transportation Adopt-A-Highway parcels near Shore Parkway that BIG has helped maintain since 1992.
“There’s not much parkland here,” said Barrison. “This is basically all we got.”
The water flooded those too. The mums never came up, nor did the shrubs or cabbage plants. The ornamental evergreens were washed away.
“We had three gardens and 45 species of plants,” said Barrison. “We lost about 75 percent of what we’d worked on for 21 years.  Springtime came, and everything was bare and dead. Then we saw the daffodils. We were shocked.”
In April, the lawn at Voorhies Avenue bloomed with thousands of them, as did the other two daffodil planting sites in the area. BIG has participated in the NY4P Daffodil Project since 2001, when it was founded as a 9/11 memorial.

This fall, they planted several thousand bulbs, just in time for Sandy’s one-year anniversary. To mark the occasion, some in the community participated in Light Up the Shore, a waterfront candlelight vigil that extended from New Jersey to Long Island.
Around 50 people gathered along the Emmons Avenue waterfront, where seven white roses were handed out: one for each person killed by Sandy in Brooklyn. In the day’s bright twilight, as speeches ended and the group turned toward the water to toss in the roses, four of the Bay’s famous resident swans had lined up in front of them. They stared back at the crowd.
“They were perfectly in a row, like soldiers,” said Laura McKenna, BIG’s Acting Executive Director. “It was very eerie, very moving.”
The swans were a reason why Shanahan, a BIG volunteer, always came back to the neighborhood, even after moving out of the Batchelder Street bungalow in her 20s. She remembers weekend visits in the summertime, and strolls along the waterfront, the center of what Barrison describes as “the little fishing village of New York City.”
Finally back in her childhood home – there was, she said, no way she’d be kept away forever – one of Shanahan’s favorite places is the community’s only waterfront dining deck, at il Fornetto.
“The swans come over – hoping you’ll feed them,” she said. “There just aren’t many parts of the city where you can see that.”

Barrison hopes that those headed to the waterfront will stop, even if just for a moment, to appreciate the three BIG gardens, which are visible from both the subway and Shore Parkway. Clearly, his group is deeply devoted to them.

“Last fall, the storm was bearing down on us, and we were planting, literally from 9 to 5pm, so we could finish up at that last site,” Barrison said. “While everyone else was leaving or getting ready, we were out there.”
It was important to Barrison and his fellow volunteers to maintain the Daffodil Project tradition.  And it’s even more so now, a year later.
“There’s a connection, Barrison said, “between 9/11 and Sandy. There’s an emotional line, whether you realize it or not.”
When last year's all-day planting was finished, Barrison had just enough time before the storm to hurry home, where his father was waiting by the window.

One Year After Sandy: Rebirth in the Rockaways

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Doris McLaughlin took a drive last spring through Queens and Brooklyn, where she saw flowers blooming and trees budding. She returned home to Ocean Bay Houses, in the Rockaways, and that’s when the full weight of the storm hit her – five months after Hurricane Sandy forced her from her apartment.
She had fled with her husband, Willy, and their English cocker spaniel, Clover, in their 1995 Volvo. With all nearby hotels full, they ended up in the massive Costco parking lot in Lawrence, just over the Nassau County line. They lived there for two weeks.
“Willy took the front, and Clover and I shared the back,” she said. “We did the best we could.”
One day during their parking lot stay, Doris and Willy drove to buy gasoline. They entered the long line at 9am. At 6 the next morning, when it was finally their turn, the station promptly ran out.
But the saddest moment for McLaughlin came when she returned home from that spring drive. Instead of the flowering trees she had seen in other parts of the city, many of the craggy trees in her Edgemere neighborhood were dead, unable to withstand the Atlantic Ocean saltwater that had flooded the area.

“That was just devastating to see,” she said. “There was no green, no life. It still looked like the dead of winter. Through all that had happened, that was the moment when I really felt it.”
McLaughlin, an avid gardener, set her sights on orchestrating a literal rebirth of her community. With the help of the New York City Housing Authority’s Garden & Greening Program and a donation from Lowe’s, she organized a planting last July. And in September, she picked up more than 1,000 bulbs from the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, provided for free through New Yorkers for Parks' Daffodil Project. She and several neighbors lined street tree pits and sidewalk lawns along Beach Channel Drive and Beach 58th Street with the bulbs.
Last Tuesday, on the one-year anniversary of the storm, McLaughlin basked in an unseasonably warm sun as children from the Housing Authority’s onsite afterschool program joined NY4P staff to plant 650 more daffodil bulbs along the perimeter of a triangular lawn at the entrance to the complex.
Nearby was Forest Zeno, a neighbor and fellow gardener. Unlike McLaughlin, he elected to stay at Ocean Bay Houses when Sandy hit. Zeno lives with his teenage son and 70-year-old mother in a 5th-floor apartment, and his days last November were filled with elevator-less trips to the street to wait in long charity giveaway lines: for food, for basic supplies, for more blankets.
“Today is a beautiful day,” he said. “Seeing the kids running around, laughing. It’s great you all are here.”
The children, from grades 4 and 6, were an efficient planting group, finishing within 45 minutes. Most had never planted before.
Passersby stopped to lean over the lawn’s fence to ask what the children were doing.
“Planting flowers!” came the response from multiple high-pitched voices, sometimes in unison.
“These kids will pass the lawn with their families in April. They’ll be dressed up, going to church, and they will be able to show their family what they’ve done for their community,” McLaughlin said. “They’ll feel a sense of ownership, of pride in this space. It’s all about picking up the pieces and feeling some pride again. They’ll make their friends want to pitch in and plant flowers too.”
They were already eager to do that. Two sisters, Victoria and Mary, looked forward to Googling an image of daffodils to show classmates. Both had been fortunate enough to remain at home in the weeks following the storm. Their friend Lucy, however, a 4th grader, said her family had lost its car.
“There are so many stories like theirs,” McLaughlin said. “So many people have been depressed. Things like this help lift us all.”
McLaughlin's contributions to her neighborhood's rebirth haven't only occurred in the soil.
She now leads 8am beach walks on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with several women she noticed were particularly down. Sometimes it is that mere act of noticing that makes all the difference.
“I have a neighbor who used to always be joking, always smiling,” she said. “One day it hit me that she hadn’t laughed in months, ever since the storm. I invited her on our walks, talked with her about how things are starting to look up. She’s starting to laugh again.”

This fall, NY4P has sponsored Sandy recovery plantings with children in Midland Beach, Staten Island, and Broad Channel, Queens, as well as this one in Far Rockaway. Additionally, the NYCHA Garden & Greening Program held a Daffodil Project planting in Red Hook, Brooklyn. More youth plantings are scheduled for the coming weeks. Photos from our 2013 Daffodil Project plantings can be viewed on our Facebook page.

A Conversation with FAR ROC Juror Holly Leicht

Thursday, November 07, 2013

NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht recently served on the jury of the FAR ROC (For a Resilient Rockaway) design competition, which challenged architects and planners to develop designs for a resilient and sustainable mixed-use development at Arverne East, an 80-acre, beachfront public site on the Rockaway Peninsula. The competition was sponsored by the City's Department of Housing and Preservation Development (HPD), the American Institute of Architects' New York Chapter, and the development team of L+M Development Partners and the Bluestone Organization, which was selected by HPD several years ago.

FAR ROC was born after Hurricane Sandy made the site's original development plan obsolete. Its purpose was to solicit creative ideas for resilient development strategies that can be implemented not only in the Rockaways but also throughout New York City and in vulnerable communities everywhere. Along with Leicht, the 11-person jury comprised representatives from the public and private sectors and academia, with expertise ranging from architecture and urban planning to engineering to affordable housing. The winner – White Arkitekter, from Sweden – was announced on October 23.

Following the announcement, and to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Leicht reflected on the jury experience and the winning proposal.

NY4P: You’ve participated in multiple design competitions – as a jury member here, and as staff at HPD, where you led the New Housing New York competition that led to the Via Verde affordable housing development in the South Bronx. Because of what the Rockaways has endured over the past year, did that lend a different feel to this one?
HL: I think it affected the jury dynamic in that there was particular deference to the community representatives on account of all that they and their community have been through. Everyone felt like the outcome of this process needed to be something the community could get behind and feel good about.
NY4P: There were two local representatives on the jury – City Council District 31 Member Donovan Richards, Jr., and Delores Orr, Chair of Queens Community Board 14. How did community sentiment play a role in the judging process?
HL: Community sentiment was one of the critical deciding factors in our choice. The winning team spent a significant amount of time in the Rockaways, but the community representatives on the jury cautioned that more guidance from people living there would be needed to tailor the final plan. The White Arkitekter team was completely cognizant that their initial outreach wouldn’t be sufficient, but they did spend a great deal of time observing the area and talking to people – from the hipster surfer community to longtime residents. And they took great efforts to incorporate elements that the community wanted. For example, the team heard significant feedback about including a central commercial area that could house specific retail amenities – a sort of town square - and the design does that. They were very open-minded about the process going forward, and they knew the plan they submitted would be the basis for what gets built but wouldn't be the be-all-end-all. That sensitivity convinced both the developers and the community that this was a team they could work with. They were also less focused on the details of the architecture and more focused on a master plan. The winners had a practical approach; they knew they were putting together a framework that would then need to be vetted with the community, and so they weren’t trying to presuppose what all the answers were.
NY4P: You were supportive of the winning design in deliberations. What about it convinced you it would be right to meet the needs of this area specifically?
HL: The major reason why I supported this proposal versus the other finalists was because I really thought it was a design that could get built within the constraints of this development project. To go forward, it had to be a plan the designated developer would feel was reasonable and economically viable. And it had to be a plan the City – because they’re helping fund it – felt would fit within their financing programs. To me, buildability was critical, because this wasn't just an ideas competition for the sake of generating innovative concepts; it was meant to create something that will actually be implemented – and if the developers or the City walked away from the winning design as being too impractical, it could make the community cynical and lead to mistrust of the design community, mistrust of government. And those entities should be serving them, not thwarting their recovery. So to me, having this competition result in a built project was essential.
NY4P: So you really feel that this will be built?
HL: It’s a viable master plan. It's comparable to large-scale developments HPD has done in other neighborhoods, and is the kind of site plan that would work and be economically feasible. Some of the other finalists were really, really exciting from an innovation standpoint and from a resiliency and environmental standpoint, but they’d be much, much more expensive and difficult to build. This one is also interesting from a resiliency perspective, but the site plan is much more feasible within the parameters of City financing programs. And there’s more room to work out the architecture as the process goes on.
NY4P: Does the winning proposal impressively integrate parks and open space?
HL: Yes, I think so. There was a third design we considered that the community also liked for the amenities it proposed, but the open space was poorly conceived. The nature preserve – a requirement of the competition – was a single swath right next to a huge parking lot and retail, so to me that didn’t feel like a successful open space. There wasn’t open space integrated with the housing, and the preserve didn’t feel like it would be a really meaningful place for the community. It felt like an afterthought. The winner did a much better job of creating a tranquil, separate preserve, and also a series of diagonal parks that connect the community north of the site and bring them down into the beach area through the site, without creating a lot of foot traffic through the main residential streets. The method of using these connector parks was a good way of making the site's amenities and the beach publicly accessible while preserving some intimacy within the residential part of the neighborhood for those who live there.
NY4P: What are the next steps?
HL: The developers were pleased with the choice, and they're going to get started working with the winning team and hopefully will bring them on board as part of the development team.
NY4P: In the end, did this process give you faith in using this type of initiative in response to a pressing need in a community?
HL: I think this was an appropriate response on a number of levels. First, it shed light on the recovery needs of this community. Because of the diffuse impact of Sandy – some parts of the city were unscathed while others were devastated – it was important for this competition, and other efforts like it, to bring international visibility to hard-hit areas. Even for those teams that didn't win, hopefully it will have a lasting effect in encouraging people to engage in helping communities in need. Second, this is bringing in the community and giving them access to resources they may not otherwise have – like environmental professionals – so they have all this expertise at their disposal to help them think about not just this site, but how to plan for recovery and for the future more broadly.
NY4P: So it brought a sort of counterbalance to the potential for designers to see the Rockaways as simply a design laboratory for experimenting with new kinds of resilient design?
HL: I think it goes both ways. It does create a design lab to some degree – which isn’t all bad, because you don’t want communities to feel abandoned and isolated at their moment of greatest need. But because community involvement played such a significant role, it keeps the process grounded in the realities of those living there.  A lot of the debate the jury had revolved around the tension between these two components. But having that debate wasn’t a bad thing. I think everyone learned something, and we came to a middle ground that is good – both for the project at hand and in general. Both through observing the Via Verde jury process and being part of this one, I’ve learned important lessons about how you balance those tensions to come up with not only an ambitious project but one that people will want to live in and one they’ll feel is connected how they live. There is certainly a temptation following a tragedy for many to want to make their mark. The key question is: how do you both encourage that sort of response but temper it by remembering that this can't be viewed by them just as an opportunity – this is where people live, and they are attached to this place as their home. It's not just a carte blanche that can be designed by someone halfway across the world without understanding who that design will affect every day. Finding that middle ground – even if there’s tension reaching it – is an important discipline for designers. And it’s also important for the community to push the envelope a little and be willing to think about things differently. In this case, people in the Rockaways have realized that they can’t just do things the same as before, and that was their tension. The outcome of bridging those tensions in both directions was a good one. FAR ROC generated big ideas and visibility, but the jury also never lost sight of the fact that this is where people live and have lost a lot.

Council Delivers $15.5 Million for Flushing Meadows

Monday, October 21, 2013

The New York City Council voted on October 9 to approve a special permit necessary to develop the Mets’ Citi Field parking lot in Queens. The agreement includes a commitment from the Queens Development Group, a partnership between Sterling Equities and The Related Companies, of $15.5 million – $8 million for capital improvements and $300,000 annually for 25 years for park maintenance.

Combined with funding that the United States Tennis Association agreed to provide in July, more than $25 million has now been secured for the long-term improvement and maintenance of Flushing Meadows Corona Park (FMCP), including seed money for a new non-profit Alliance that will be dedicated to the stewardship of the 897-acre park. NY4P worked particularly hard to ensure that the partnership would invest in the park over time, not just provide a one-time payment.

The combined commitment of $550,000 annually to augment – not supplant – the Parks Department’s budget for FMCP will have a game-changing impact on this historically underfunded park.  It will go a long way toward bringing the park from its current sub-par condition up to the nationally recognized standard for park upkeep.

Over the past year, Council Member Julissa Ferreras has made the park, and its users, a top priority in her negotiations with those seeking to develop in or near the park. NY4P is grateful to her for her leadership and stalwart commitment to her community and its greatest open space resource.

Holly Leicht Speaks at MAS Summit

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Last Thursday, NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht participated in a panel discussion on preserving neighborhood assets as part of the 2013 Municipal Art Society Summit for New York City. Her presentation focused on NY4P’s advocacy to protect a true neighborhood asset for multiple park-starved neighborhoods in Queens: Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Our work with both Council Member Julissa Ferreras and community stakeholders – along with a study we commissioned to estimate the park’s current and upgraded maintenance costs – proved critical in delivering more than $25 million to augment the park’s budget and help seed a new nonprofit Alliance dedicated to its stewardship. Additionally, we’re hopeful that our opposition to a proposed professional soccer stadium in the heart of the park will encourage the new New York City Football Club to build the stadium elsewhere.