Park Advocates Push to Protect Playgrounds From Developers
September 25, 2018
By Katie Honan
Zebadiah Nelson spends nearly every afternoon at the Marx Brothers Playground in Manhattan’s East Harlem, practicing baseball and football with his friends.
It is one of the few open spaces near Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation, which the 17-year-old senior attends. The 1.4-acre playground—with its spacious baseball and soccer fields—has been around since 1947, but if the city and a developer get their way, it will become part of a 700-foot residential tower.
“I’d hate to see it go,” Mr. Nelson said. “There’s not much else around here. With the park, we have another place that we can always go.”
While Nelson and others who enjoy Marx Brothers Playground consider it a park, it technically isn’t. It and more than 260 other green spaces in the city are known as “jointly operated playgrounds.” These playgrounds don’t have state designation as official parks and, in turn, don’t enjoy the state protections against development that official parks do.
In 2017, the city announced a plan for a large residential tower with about 1,000 apartments, including more than 300 affordable units, on an entire block in East Harlem. Part of that development—which includes new schools—would be on the current Marx Brothers Playground site.
The city plan has met with opposition from neighbors and park-advocacy groups, including the Trust for Public Land and The Municipal Art Society. They say the city has no right to build private developments on these open spaces and have filed a lawsuit to stop the plan from moving forward. Oral arguments in the case will be heard in December.
The park advocates have also raised concerns that city officials—who are desperate to build more affordable apartments to alleviate a housing crisis—could identify other jointly operated playgrounds as sites for future developments.
“It’s no surprise that the city is looking for creative ways to expand on some of the more important uses and needs in the city—like school seats and affordable housing,” said Lynn Kelly, the Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks.
“We support wanting and needing housing and additional school seats, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of scarce and critical open space.”
Ms. Kelly testified last week at a New York City Council hearing about the use of jointly operated playgrounds and urged lawmakers to protect them from development.
The developer, AvalonBay Communities Inc., couldn’t be reached for comment. But it has said previously that it is working with elected officials and the community to bring improvements to East Harlem and a new playground to replace Marx Brothers.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said at an unrelated press conference that the city should use some playgrounds to create new classrooms for schools or other development projects, so long as the community still gets public space.
“We want to keep the same recreation opportunities for the community,” Mr. de Blasio said.
Jointly operated playgrounds first started being built in the 1940s, usually next to schools on land owned by the city Department of Education. There are currently 263 across the city; Brooklyn has the most, with 86, while Queens has 82.
They have been mostly spared from development, although playgrounds are sometimes used to expand public schools. In 2016, the city built an extension for P.S. 176 in Queens on a jointly operated playground. Three other schools in the borough plan to build extensions on these playgrounds, according to the Department of Education.
City Councilman Barry Grodenchik, the chairman of the council’s parks committee, said after the council hearing on the playgrounds that it is looking for ways to protect them from further development.
“The average person would never know that these are not New York City parks,” Mr. Grodenchik said.
Elizabeth Goldstein, the president of the Municipal Art Society, said removing even one playground “highlights the actual vulnerability of these places across the city.”
“We want playgrounds to be treated with the same regard that parkland is—and the loss of them should be taken very seriously, and mitigated for, if that’s ultimately the policy decision you are making,” she said.