NY4P in Politico: State Projects Draw Fire From Advocates

On a warm day in July, City Hall and the nonprofit group that runs Central Park announced that they would spend $150 million to renovate the park's Lasker pool and ice rink. The next day in the South Bronx, five miles and a world away, activists hosted a parks-related event that was less gleeful.

Near an entrance marred by a heap of garbage bags collecting flies, activists warned that a coming $1.7 billion New York State highway redevelopment, a gubernatorial priority, would render the park in which they were standing, and another one nearby, less accessible to the public and would require a piece of a park for new highway ramps.

The highway plan would create "a wall of congestion, of truck traffic, of pollution right adjacent to where children are playing and people are recreating," said Sydney Céspedes, a planner for the Pratt Center for Community Development who helped organize the gathering. The advocates say the state is moving forward without formally considering any alternatives.

Similar complaints can be heard across the river and through the woods at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, another under-resourced yet cherished greensward where the state is quickly advancing another megaproject, a roughly $1.5 billion AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport. Depending on the scenario the state chooses, the AirTrain could run along Flushing Bay Promenade, or over Flushing Bay and require the taking of a paved-over portion of the park.

"Like the Bronx, this area in Queens is littered with large infrastructure projects that cut people off from open space and their waterways," said Rebecca Pryor, a program coordinator at Riverkeeper and Guardians of Flushing Bay. "Why are we building another piece of large infrastructure that would cut people off in the same way?"

Infrastructure is central to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's argument that he gets things done. He routinely points to the new Tappan Zee bridge — which he named for his father — and the rebuild of LaGuardia Airport as examples of his can-do approach to governance.

"We needed to get this done on the deadline because we're New York and when we set a deadline, we're going to get it done," Cuomo said at the long-delayed opening of the first three stops of the Second Avenue Subway a year and a half ago. "We needed to show people that government works and we can still do big things and great things."

Critics wonder, however, if his emphasis on haste comes at a cost.

"There's insufficient justification for the projects given to the public, and no alternatives are actually being explored in either project," said Elena Conte, Pratt Center policy director.

The Bronx project is part of the governor's otherwise well-received plan to transform Robert Moses' little-loved Sheridan Expressway into a boulevard, and, in that location at least, partially enhance neighborhood access to the riverfront on the other side.

The purpose of the plan is also to give the 78,000 vehicles — including 13,000 trucks— that drive to the area every day easier access to the Hunts Point food market. The state plans to send many of those vehicles down new highway ramps along Edgewater Road, which runs between the neighborhood and two new parks — Hunts Point Riverside Park and Concrete Plant Park — and the riverside campus of a neighborhood organization called The Point.

Although community organizations and the Bloomberg administration embraced an alternative proposal in 2013 involving Oak Point Avenue, the state is not including that proposal in its formal environmental review process, citing the opposition of Amtrak and CSX, which run trains through the area. Further, Pratt planners have sought the data underlying the state's conclusions in its draft environmental review, but the state has said it will release the data only after the public comment period ends on Tuesday.

"Given Amtrak's and CSX's control of the Oak Point land, Edgewater is the only viable option to successfully enhance pedestrian safety, ease truck congestion, reduce noise and create bike-friendly paths," said state transportation department spokesman Joseph Morrissey. "It provides a more direct route to the Hunts Point Market and will handle commercial traffic better than the Oak Point option — resulting in fewer truck trips on local streets and better air quality for residents."

Further, Pratt planners have sought the data underlying the state's conclusions in its draft environmental review, but the state has said it will release the data only after the public comment period ends on Tuesday.

"When you have a project that's this size and scope, it just seems odd to only have one proposal being analyzed in an [environmental review]," said New Yorkers for Parks Executive Director Lynn Kelly. "Just on its face value, that's unusual. This is not a small action, right?"

To make up for the park impacts, the state plans to improve an existing park, which functions as an illegal dumping ground along the river — and, the advocates said, is likely to continue functioning as a dumping ground without additional resources.

In Queens, the state has indicated it is moving ahead with the AirTrain, but has yet to release a ridership study whose funding was authorized in February 2017.

Without the ridership estimates, how is anyone to know if the AirTrain is "totally essential," asked Pryor, who argued the state is jeopardizing a community resource without adequate rationale.

"There's no denying the region needs better access to LaGuardia, and that won't come from increasingly congested roadways — it has to be rail, and it has to be reliable," said Benjamin Branham, a spokesman for the Port Authority, which is spearheading the project. "We've done extensive community engagement to-date, resulting in strong community feedback favoring an alignment north of the Grand Central Parkway which prompted legislation approved by the Senate and Assembly allowing this corridor to be considered. Further public input will continue to be critical — and is in fact required — as the formal environmental review process gets underway."

New York City, whose land stands to be affected by these projects, doesn't seem to be putting up much of a fight.

Regarding the Bronx project, Parks Department spokeswoman Meghan Lalor said, "Parks is still reviewing the draft [environmental impact statement], and we will submit comments by the end of July."

Of the Queens project, mayoral spokesman Seth Stein said the city "is working with the Port Authority to ensure that the interests of local communities are protected, which includes restitution and restoration of the parkland."

The two sites share another similarity, too: wildlife.

Adam Green runs Rocking the Boat, an organization that teaches kids how to build boats from scratch (they even contract a sawyer to harvest cedar and oak from the Hudson Valley).

On that recent visit to the connecting Hunts Point Riverside Park, he and his colleagues said that the placid Bronx River is a haven for birds, and birdwatchers. So, too, is Flushing Bay, where visitors can spot peregrine falcons, egrets and herons.

Green's organization launches rowboats from the Hunts Point park, and brushed off questions about the park's evident lack of maintenance. The park, he and the others argued, is important, and loved.

"This is Hunts Point, it's not Central Park," he said.

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