Politico Coverage: Mayor De Blasio, New Parks

De Blasio Promises New Parks, With Details Still To Come

August 19, 2016 

By Laura Nahmias

New York City is “absolutely” planning to build more parks in the coming years, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday.

De Blasio made his promise on the same day he announced plans to invest $150 million in five existing “anchor” parks, one in each of the five boroughs.

The five parks, St. Mary's in the Bronx, Highbridge Park in Manhattan, Betsy Head Park in Brooklyn, Astoria Park in Queens, and Freshkills Park on Staten Island, will each receive $30 million to make major upgrades like installing baseball and soccer fields, planting trees and other new landscape features, and building playgrounds. The city is anticipating those upgrades will be completed within four years, parks commissioner Mitchell Silver said at a press conference inside a community center adjacent to St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx.

De Blasio's vow to build new parks did not come with details, which may not have surprised advocates who believe the mayor hasn’t focused enough attention on park creation. With the city's population at an all-time high of 8.5 million and hurtling toward 9 million, it's not enough to upgrade current parkland, they say. The city also needs more park acreage.

What's more, they say, the mayor’s plans to rezone large swaths of the city will create new pockets of density in areas that are already lacking in green space.

City Hall has set aside a $1 billion infrastructure fund for capital improvements to go along with the rezonings, but those funds will have to stretch a long way, said City Councilman Mark Levine, chairman of the Council's parks committee.

The fund has no dedicated amount set aside for parks.

“It’s a big issue in terms of the upzoning and creating these areas that are much more dense,” said Tupper Thomas, the head of New Yorkers for Parks, who said she was "very happy" to hear de Blasio promise to build new parks.

Although the mayor noted that the city has acquired 260 acres of land for park development in recent years, his parks agenda has largely centered on recalibrating the way the city spends money on parks to distribute funds more equitably to parks in poorer communities.

Thursday’s announcement about the anchor parks follows plans that he announced in 2014 to invest $285 million in dozens of community parks around the city over a period of several years. Even the anchor park investment came after the City Council made it a key element of its requests for this year's city budget process.

Still, the 260 acres the city already owns for new parkland isn’t likely to be enough, Thomas noted. “They may have to buy land," she said.

The costs of buying new parkland in private sales can be prohibitively expensive, as the city is realizing in its negotiations to purchase land for Bushwick Inlet Park, but there are several major new parks projects where the land already has been acquired to build them.

For example, there’s the BQ Green, a park that would be built over a low-lying section of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. And little progress has been made on the Queensway, a proposed 3.5-mile-long park that would stretch along abandoned rail tracks from Ozone Park to Rego Park, by way of Forest Park.

The Low Line, an underground park that would run through sections of the Lower East Side, isn’t exactly in the poorest neighborhood, but it is a place where rapid development has made open space increasingly rare for residents.

The mayor, an avowed fan of Prospect Park who is notably diffident about other city parks like Central Park (which he rarely visits) and the High Line (which he's never visited), hasn't talked much about the newer park projects.

But those projects deserve de Blasio’s attention too, said Levine.

“The city’s population is growing to near record levels and construction is continuing to boom. We’re upzoning neighborhoods. This is only going to continue,” he said.

“Many of our parks are at record usage. We have got to plan for an increase in open space and green space. It’s what makes the city livable. That’s the way that 8.5 million people can live together in one place. It costs money to build parks, and grand parks, grand projects like Queensway, BQ Green and the Low lLne are not cheap projects, but to me it is an investment which yields returns in so many ways, including financial and economic returns by the way, but most importantly in quality of life,” Levine said.

“I would really like to see the city invest in grand parks projects like that which are so desperately needed.”

A parks spokesman pointed to metrics he said served as evidence of the administration's commitment to the park system.

For example, out that of the roughly 260 acres of parkland acquired by the city over the past five years, 99 acres had been acquired since de Blasio took office in January, 2014. The city also has plans to acquire 12 more acres of parkland in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn in the coming months.

The Parks Department currently has around 500 active capital contracts, and the city typically spends between $400 million and $500 million on its parks each year.

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