Outlook in 2002: Unfinished Business From the Giuliani Era

by Anne Schwartz, Dec 1, 2002

Parks commissioner Henry Stern will not be asked to stay on in the Bloomberg administration, it was recently reported in several New York newspapers. The eccentric parks chief, who calls everyone in his department by a "park" name and often brings his golden retriever, Boomer, along with him on official business, has led the department for almost 15 years under two mayors. There have been a number of controversies during his tenure, including a racial discrimination lawsuit by black and Hispanic employees and inquiries into the setting and spending of fees charged for private organizations to use the parks. The commissioner also has been criticized for acquiescing to Mayor Rudy Giuliani's yearly pruning of the parks operating budget, leaving the department with less than half the staff it had in the mid-1980s.

But Stern also expanded park acreage and initiated many capital projects. He thought up the Greenstreets program, which planted 800 traffic triangles and street medians. Although parks in less affluent areas were largely bypassed, his creative funding and staffing strategies have helped to make many of the city's parks more beautiful and well-used than they have been in decades. At a recent parks event, Stern said that he will continue to work on behalf of parks, and hinted that he will be freer to speak his mind.

The next parks commissioner will inherit a department with a greatly reduced budget and a shortage of staff, especially skilled workers like gardeners and plumbers. During the election, a broad-based coalition of grassroots, civic, and business groups advocated for increasing parks funding to one percent of the budget (from its current .04 percent) and setting maintenance standards that would be applied equally to parks in all parts of the city. Mayor-elect Mike Bloomberg and many newly elected city council members supported the goals of the campaign. But now economists are comparing the city's budget problems to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. To make up for a $1 billion shortfall in this year's budget, Mayor Guiliani has proposed across-the-board budget reductions, including $4.6 million from parks. Next year's deficit is predicted to be $3.6 billion. "If everyone takes a cut, it's hard to argue that [parks] shouldn't take a cut," says Mike Klein, deputy director of the Parks Council. "But we want to remind people that the parks took a cut even when others did not."

In spite of the grim budget outlook, Klein is optimistic about Bloomberg's approach to parks because of the mayor-elect's experience as a board member of the Central Parks Conservancy. "We look for him to have very high standards for the parks system," Klein said. "We think Bloomberg has a terrific respect for how gorgeous and terrific public space can be, and look forward to working with him on expanding his standard of excellence throughout the city."


Community gardens

For years, tenacious community gardeners have been skirmishing with an equally tenacious Mayor Giuliani over the city's plan to sell to developers hundreds of city-owned vacant lots that were cleaned and greened by neighborhood groups. In his campaign literature, Mayor-elect Bloomberg said the city should work with community and civic groups to evaluate all community gardens; he also called for the establishment of a trust for parcels appropriate for garden use. Community garden advocates say they are waiting to see how these general ideas will translate into official policy. As of now, an injunction granted in a lawsuit by New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer is preventing the city from going through with any sales of community garden lots. The Bloomberg administration will have to decide whether to continue fighting the lawsuit or to negotiate with the attorney general.

Ball fields or woods?

A conflict in Staten Island over the fate of a natural area will also be carried over into the new administration. A local environmental group, Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, is suing to stop the city from building soccer and baseball fields and basketball and tennis courts in eastern Bloomingdale Park, a forested city park originally set aside for its natural values and for flood control. New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer and New York City Audubon have filed amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit. For now, construction is on hold while the lawsuits make their way through the system. The Staten Island political establishment is eager to build the fields, responding to pressure from sports groups and parents for playing space in the rapidly developing southern part of the island. The conservation groups want the fields placed at other, less environmentally sensitive sites. They also say that that it doesn't make sense to put ball fields on wet, hilly land - the fields would be costly to build and maintain, and could end up flooded and useless like fields built on damp ground elsewhere in the city. If they are right, the Bloomberg administration could end up with an expensive boondoggle. A study commissioned by the parks department found that constructing fields in Bloomingdale Park would cost four times as much as building the same fields at three alternative sites. The parks department originally opposed the plan, but was silenced by Mayor Giuliani.Ferry Point Park

A plan for a new golf course on city parkland that was pushed through by the Giuliani administration may come back to haunt Mayor-elect Bloomberg. Environmental concerns continue to surface at the Bronx site, the 220-acre eastern section of Ferry Point Park. The park was formerly a municipal garbage dump located over wetlands along the East River. The city granted Ferry Point Partners, a private developer, a 35-year concession to construct and run the 18-hole professional-level golf course.

The Ferry Point landfill operated and closed before strict regulations governing the disposal of garbage went into effect, at a time when hazardous waste frequently found its way into municipal dumps. An environmental assessment conducted by a consultant to the developer found high levels of toxic chemicals, including PCBs, arsenic, and lead, in soil borings at the site. It also detected methane gas, which is produced by decomposing garbage and is explosive at high concentrations. But the parks department determined that the findings did not warrant a more thorough environmental impact statem ent. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is monitoring the project, gave its approval.

Even as trucks haul in rubble to cover the landfill and bulldozers reshape the terrain, two environmental groups and residents of a nearby housing project are suing to force the city and state to conduct a more comprehensive environmental review. To begin with, they say, the assessment never looked into the history of the landfill, and what was dumped there. They also suspect that toxic contamination is more extensive than the developer's assessment concluded because several potential routes for seepage of chemicals from the site were not investigated. Rainwater percolating through layers of garbage typically leaches contaminants into the groundwater, yet at Ferry Point there are no monitoring wells to detect what chemicals might be going into the groundwater or the East River. Also not looked into was the possibility that water could be entering the old dump from wetlands or springs underneath. Although test wells are checking methane levels, they are not measuring volatile organic compounds and other carcinogenic substances that tend to migrate along with the methane. Methane readings, however, have been dangerously high in several places. To deal with this unforeseen problem, Ferry Point Partners and the Department of Environmental Conservation are constructing blocks-long, gravel-filled venting trenches near the edges of the park. One trench is in a public park across from the housing project.

Most of the local politicians and the community board support the plan, which they see as a win-win proposition. The developer is underwriting the construction (throwing into the bargain a new community park and a waterfront promenade), and will pay the city an annual fee or a percentage of the golf course revenues if that is higher. But because the city indemnified the developer against "all losses, damages, costs, expenses or liabilities" stemming from preexisting environmental contamination, the city could be stuck with a hefty bill from environmental cleanups or lawsuits.