The Filtration Plant in Van Cortlandt Park

by Anne Schwartz, Jul 23, 2004

The city is moving quickly to build a controversial water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, now that a final environmental study just released by the city's Department of Environmental Protection has chosen that site as its preferred location.

If everything goes according to plan, the construction of the plant - which would be built underground in the southeast corner of the park beneath the Mosholu Golf Course driving range - would start this summer, said agency spokesman Charles Sturcken. But community groups and park advocates vow to continue fighting against the park site. They say that a park adjoining a densely packed residential area is the wrong place for an industrial facility, especially when another location is available. In addition, they say that the means used to obtain the parkland sets a disturbing precedent that puts other city parks at risk.

The city needs to build the plant because it is under a court order to filter the 10 percent of the water supply that comes from the Croton watershed to meet federal drinking-water standards. For nearly a decade, it has been trying to put a filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park. After opposition groups sued, the state's highest court ruled in 2001 that the city could not take over, or "alienate," parkland for the plant without the approval of the State Legislature. Because such approval had never been granted before without the assent of the local Assembly member and because the area's representative, Jeffrey Dinowitz, strongly opposed the park site, many believed the Van Cortlandt site was out.

Last year, however, Mayor Michael Bloomberg brokered a deal with Bronx politicians to bypass Assemblyman Dinowitz by promising $200 million in additional funding for Bronx parks.

The State Legislature made its approval to change the use of 28 acres of Van Cortlandt Park contingent on a "Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement" examining the park site as well as two alternate sites, including city-owned land in a Westchester industrial park. It also required the legislative leaders and the city to sign a "Memorandum of Understanding" specifying the amount of money that would go to the Bronx to "perform capital improvements to existing park and recreational facilities" and detailing a list of projects it could be spent on.

Opponents of the project say the city never seriously considered the alternatives, particularly the Eastview site in Westchester, which has almost no residential neighbors. "Very few people honestly believed that this [impact statement] was anything other than rigged," said Dinowitz, noting that the city let out contracts to bid for the construction earlier in the spring. "A close reading of the [impact statement] reveals that the impact of building in Van Cortlandt Park is much greater that at Eastview because it is surrounded by a densely populated community and we'd lose a significant piece of parkland."

Engineering Advantages

The Department of Environmental Protection prefers the Mosholu site because of engineering, security, and cost advantages, among other considerations. It is closer to existing tunnels and other water infrastructure, necessitating the construction of fewer miles of tunnels. In addition, because it is nearer to the distribution system, filtered water would go directly to users without further chlorination. If the Eastview site were used, for a number of years until a new tunnel is built, filtered Croton water would be directed through the same tunnels as water from the Catskill/Delaware system, making the entire water supply vulnerable to one catastrophic event. Putting the filtration plant in Westchester would also consolidate the city's water treatment facilities in the same location, because the city intends to build an ultraviolet disinfection plant at that site for the rest of the city's water supply, from the Catskill/Delaware watershed.

Agency studies also estimate that a plant at the Mosholu site would cost less to build and operate, with total capital costs of $1.235 billion versus $1.247 billion at Eastview, although questions have been raised about the accuracy of those numbers.

Another factor in favor of the Mosholu site, according to the agency, is that the jobs and economic benefits would go to city and Bronx residents and businesses. For this reason, city construction unions have vigorously supported building the plant in the Bronx over Westchester. Their members have shown up in force at public hearings, including an event where they shouted down plant opponents. But, Dinowitz said, there are still no guarantees that "one single Bronxite will get any of the jobs." Sturcken said the agency could not comment on how it will assure that Bronx residents have preference for the jobs or whether there will be an effort to hire minority workers.

Environmental Impacts

Jerome Avenue, where the #4 train rumbles by on elevated tracks, is all that separates the filtration plant site from blocks of tightly packed six-story apartment buildings. About 25,000 people live within a half-mile radius, in the working class, largely minority Norwood area. The site also borders a worn corner of the park and a new playground. The city plans to bury the filtration plant underneath the current driving range. Construction would require tearing down a 1914 golf house, which was designed as a smaller version of the genteel suburban golf clubs of the time, as well as a grove of towering sweet gum trees.

The city has promised to rebuild the driving range on top of the underground plant and to put up a new golf house and maintenance building. Two acres would remain fenced off for parking and for buildings to receive and store chemicals. Rock walls resembling the existing walls along Jerome Avenue would incorporate louvers venting the underground heating and cooling systems and also function as vehicle barriers. Park users wonder, however, whether the city will really allow them back on the site because of security concerns.

During the expected five to eight years of construction, residents would be subjected to the noise and dust of construction, including blasting 85 feet into bedrock, and the pollution and traffic from trucks as well as hundreds of additional cars trying to find parking spots in the neighborhood. The city says it can reduce the impacts by using noise barriers and dust controls, restricting trucks to routes away from residential neighborhoods, improving a nearby highway interchange, and relocating the driving range so it can continue to operate during construction. It has allocated $43 million to restore the area and other parts of Van Cortlandt Park. The study also considered as mitigation the $200 million to be spent on other Bronx parks.

Building the plant in Van Cortlandt Park also requires substantial work at the nearby Jerome Park Reservoir, across from the Bronx High School of Science.

The Eastview site is grown-over farmland in an area of Westchester that is being developed as a commercial park for industrial, medical, and municipal facilities and has virtually no residential neighbors. The impacts to neighbors would be minimal, and the land will eventually be developed, whether or not the filtration plant goes there. The site lacks highway access, however, and the environmental study, which looked at 27 interchanges on local roads, determined that it was not possible to mitigate the combined traffic impact of constructing the filtration plant concurrently with the disinfection plant.

For Parks, Some Troubling Precedents

Whatever the pros and cons of the Mosholu site, park advocates have raised serious concerns about the process by which the city obtained the site. It sets precedents, they say, that could weaken protection for parks citywide.

Because parkland is held in the public trust, a city or town cannot take it away for another use, no matter how critical, without the approval of the State Legislature. In the past, the Assembly has traditionally deferred to the member representing the park area, giving the community a voice in the process. Now a precedent has been set to alienate parkland against the wishes of the local Assembly member. In the future, it could be easier for the city (or any municipality in the state) to take over parkland without regard to the concerns of local residents as long as enough other lawmakers get something for their constituents out of the deal.

The law also generally requires that when parkland is taken away from the public and turned over to another use, it must be replaced by new parkland nearby of equal or greater fair market value. When parkland is traded for money, however, it is much more difficult to guarantee that a fair exchange will actually happen. Will the money actually be spent to benefit parks in the affected area and not redirected to marginally related projects? And will it supplement, not replace, regularly budgeted funds?

There has already been an attempt to grab some of the money for other projects. A Senate bill introduced in June would broaden the types of projects eligible for the $200 million to include new recreational facilities. On a recent Bronxtalk television call-in show, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion said the bill would "expand beyond parks to the kind of facilities that our young people need, like youth and recreation centers, sports facilities." Among the projects he said he would like to see developed are ice skating rinks and boathouses. The authorship of the bill is unknown - spokesmen for Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg claimed no knowledge of its source and the office of Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno was not able to provide the information. The general consensus is that the bill won't move, but park advocates are wary. "This pulls so far from the original intent of the mitigation funds, you really have to wonder if this is becoming a free-for-all with these funds," said Paul Sawyer, executive director of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park.

As for whether the $200 million will really be additional funding, "we're all going to wait and see," said Christian DiPalermo, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks, the citywide parks advocacy group. "We'll see in the next several years, if projects that weren't slated to be funded are now going to be funded." According to a parks department official, the city spent an average of $28 million a year in capital funds on Bronx parks over the last five or six years.

Opposition groups also charge that the city is ignoring its own zoning regulations in the effort to site the plant. They say that parkland is unzoned, so when the city takes parkland and makes it something else, it needs to create zoning that allows for the intended use. Furthermore, the kind of zoning required for an industrial facility includes a buffer area separating it from apartment buildings. Karen Argenti, a community activist who has spent the last decade fighting the plant, says that if the city doesn't go through the usual land-use process to get the appropriate zoning, "that means that every place in New York where there is a park where there are people living across the street, there could be manufacturing put in the park."

Charles Sturcken of the Department of Environmental Protection said, "I think all the appropriate approvals will be in place so that we can go ahead and build," but would not comment further on the zoning issue because of expected litigation.

"You are engineering major infrastructure in an urban environment, so you have normal land use issues, within a political context. It's a classic kind of dilemma for government," Sturcken said. "But at the end of the day, what you are doing, you're providing clean water that meets the standards of the federal government and the State of New York."

The Battle Is Not Over

The next step toward building the plant is for the City Council to ratify the Memorandum of Understanding with Governor Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The memorandum will include a list of projects that could be funded, although community groups say there has been no public input on what these should be. The City Council is expected to vote on this soon. Once the memorandum is approved, the city must submit its plans to the federal court that has ordered the filtration plant to be built.

Opponents continue to fight to keep the filtration plant out of the park. According to Paul Sawyer, Friends of Van Cortlandt Park and several other groups are considering lawsuits on a number of grounds, including zoning and environmental justice issues. He said, "It's not exactly a done deal. This can still be stopped." Assemblyman Dinowitz said, "As far as I'm concerned, this battle is not yet over. While the Legislature and Governor have acted, the third branch has not. "