The Future of Ridgewood Reservoir: Birds or Baseball?

by Anne Schwartz, Jul 18, 2008

The 50-acre, three-basin Ridgewood Reservoir sits on high ridge where Queens and Brooklyn meet, just south of the Jackie Robinson Parkway, in the northeast corner of Highland Park. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 2007 sustainability blueprint, PlaNYC 2030, identified the site as one of eight underdeveloped park properties the city plans to transform with active recreational facilities and allocated $50 million in capital funding for Ridgewood Reservoir alone.

While local residents, environmentalists and parks advocates agree that the reservoir, now officially off-limits to the public, should become more accessible, they disagree over how the area should be used. The parks department is considering a proposal to put ball fields in one of the reservoir's basins. Citywide and local environmental and parks groups want to keep the basin intact as a nature preserve and use the funding for new and improved facilities elsewhere in Highland Park. They have political support from the two local community boards, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and many other elected officials, including City Comptroller (and mayoral candidate) William Thompson, who co-authored a New York Times op-ed piece on the issue with Robert Kennedy Jr. in May.

However, many residents of the adjacent neighborhoods of Cypress Hills, East New York and Bushwick - areas with very few parks and trees - support the ball field proposal. On June 19, about 100 people from East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), an organization dedicated to empowering residents to improve their communities, demonstrated on the steps of City Hall and then went inside to testify at a hearing of the City Council parks committee, voicing their support for more sports fields.

As in so many park conflicts, the competing visions for Ridgewood Reservoir reflect the difficulty of balancing the many different claims on the city's precious open space. And, as in several other recent parks controversies, such as the one surrounding using funds from private schools to build soccer fields on Randalls Island, it raises the question of whether parks projects tend to be determined by the availability of funding, rather than through a comprehensive planning process that takes into account all available parkland, community needs, environmental benefits, cost-effectiveness and site suitability.

A Hidden Gem

For 100 years, Ridgewood Reservoir, located on the southwestern side of a large swath of open space that includes several cemeteries and Forest Park in Queens, was part of the city's water system. It was taken out of regular service in 1959 and completely drained in 1989. Surrounded by a chain-link fence, it was known mostly to residents who exercised on the perimeter path and people who used the basins illegally for a paintball course.

The reservoir's three adjacent clay-lined basins, with sloping, rock-reinforced walls, have an average depth of about 20 feet. Over the years, wetland and forest vegetation has grown inside the two outer basins. In the middle basin, a pond persists, surrounded by thick stands of the invasive reed phragmites. Several small buildings - a caretaker cottage and pumphouses - have fallen into disrepair.

On a sunny day in June, I visited the reservoir with staff from New York City Audubon, including Glenn Phillips, executive director, and Susan Elbin, director of conservation. After parking next to a picnic area shaded by large, graceful trees, we climbed up a stone stairway set into the hillside to the path circling the reservoir.

Joggers passed as we looked through the chain-link fence into a sunken forest overgrown with vines. Bird sang and flitted in the treetops. The reservoir is a stopover for birds migrating along the Atlantic flyway and provides breeding territory for nearly 40 species, many of which are rarely found in the city. So far, 137 bird species have been counted in the reservoir basins. There is also an abundance of butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies and other insects, as well as several rare native plant species. "How many people pass by here every day and have no idea that this is one of the treasures of New York City?" Phillips said.

Serendipitously, we met up with a large contingent from the parks department, who invited us to go down into the basins with them, helping us descend the steep sides with ropes.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who was part of the group, explained that the department's Natural Resources Group has inventoried and mapped the numerous distinct ecological communities in the three basins.

We walked single file through the tangle of shrubs and trees to a mossy opening in the early successional forest of Basin 1. Mike Feller, the parks department's chief naturalist, called it the "'Lost World' in reverse. Twenty years ago, he said, the basin was an open wet meadow. He recalled walking there in 1988 or 1989 amid tall sedges and sweet gum and red maple saplings. Today, it is growing into a mosaic of predominantly native forests adapted to wet conditions. Ideally, these diverse and ecologically rich plant communities could be self-sustaining, said Benepe, although invasive vines and trees have also gotten a foothold.

Back on the pathway, we walked around to the reservoir's northern side, where an opening in the trees offers a bucolic vista of the pond and marsh in Basin 2. Finally, we descended into the third and largest basin - where athletic fields might go. This basin has what Feller described as a "split personality." At its southern end is a mix of wetland plant communities similar to Basin 1. But the northern half, where the topsoil is very thin, is overrun with non-native, invasive trees and shrubs, and lacks the ecological diversity and value for wildlife of the other sections. One large area is composed almost exclusively of just two plant types: Black locust trees form a canopy over a knee-high understory of mugwort.

Feller explained that this section is full of seeds of undesirable plants that the wind and birds would inevitably spread elsewhere in the reservoir, possibly crowding out the indigenous plans. "The sooner you remove the invasives the better," he said. "There comes a point where the seed load is too high." In light of that, "Doing nothing is the worst of all scenarios," Benepe said.

The Proposed Ball Field Plan

PlaNYC called for using all of Basin 3 for active recreation, but the current proposal, a preliminary idea from the design consultant Mark Morrison Associates, would put athletic facilities on 10 acres in the basin, about 20 percent of the reservoir's total acreage. Building and maintaining fields would require bulldozing through the reservoir walls to provide ground-level access for trucks and machinery, as well as razing the forest.

So far, nothing has been decided. "It's not clear we're going to build fields," Benepe said. "It's completely up in the air-a possibility but not a given." At the City Council hearing, he mentioned some of the other ideas the department is considering, such adding bikeways and walkways, providing interpretive maps and converting one of the historic structures into a nature center, though presumably these could be done in addition to, as well as instead of, the athletic facilities.

From the commissioner's testimony at the hearing, it is clear that his department favors combining natural areas and recreation in the basin. This, officials believe, would not only expand recreational opportunities to improve the health and quality of life for New Yorkers, as mandated by PlaNYC, but also make the basin easily accessible for forest management, maintenance and crime control.

As to suggestions that the department put more fields in other parts of Highland Park instead, Benepe noted that the department is building a multi-use field on some of the old tennis courts in the lower part of the park, but the "issue with Highland Park is that much of it is on a hill. Virtually all of the flat land is taken up by fields or other facilities."

After an in-depth site analysis by the design consultant, the parks department will start developing conceptual plans "that will be the basis for discussion with various community groups, elected officials and the community boards," said Benepe. The goal is to begin the first phase in October 2009 and complete work by spring 2011.

Reversing the Neglect

Highland Park has numerous recreational facilities, including basketball, tennis and handball courts, baseball fields, two playgrounds, a children's garden, a running track and walking trails. The Brooklyn-Queens Greenway goes along the southern side of the reservoir. But the park has suffered from decades of neglect, community members say, and several decades ago crime there was rampant. Residents do praise the parks department with making substantial improvements since then.

At the City Council hearing, several leaders of East Brooklyn Congregations said more needs to be done. They called for the department to repair existing fields, fix the paths, stairways and lighting around the reservoir, and create more places to play baseball, soccer and other sports inside the basin.

They stressed that this must be done in an environmentally sound way. "If you come here, it's because you do love nature," said Juan Romero, a parishioner at St. Joseph Patron Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick and an EBC leader.

However, they made it clear they want sports to play a role in the reservoir. "We're not against birds, but to allow the reservoir to remain strictly for the birds would not be in the best interests of 500,000 people," said Bishop David Benke, pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Cypress Hills and EBC co-founder. He said that bringing more people into the area for active recreation would enhance the mission of an environmental center and make the natural areas safer.

At the hearing, Benepe cited numerous examples of city parks where wildlife thrives in natural areas next to recreational facilities, including Central Park, Prospect Park and Alley Pond. He noted that this department has a great deal of experience with the stewardship of natural areas. "We want to make these better habitats by managing and promoting growth of native species and planting species that provide food for wildlife," he said.

Keeping the Reservoir Whole

Environmental and park groups acknowledge the need for more recreation and respect that the parks department has chosen the least valuable part of the basin for its ball field proposal. But, they say, Ridgewood Reservoir is a unique place worthy of special protection. "Put in hiking trails instead of ball fields," said Elbin.

"Ridgewood Reservoir has habitat for birds and plants not found elsewhere, particularly in that part of Brooklyn and Queens in need of natural areas," said Phillips. "The value of that particular property is greater than you might expect because it's surrounded on all sides by open space."

"This is an urban area that doesn't have a lot of natural areas that are accessible to residents of the city, especially the youth," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. "One could argue that a hike through a natural area is just as important for youth as playing soccer."

Opponents of the ball fields fear that even a limited plan could have a major impact on the area. "Even if you open half of the basin to ball fields and leave the other half entirely intact, it's going to change the dynamic," Phillips said. Ball fields would inevitably bring greater disturbances - -including dogs - to the forested areas, and it is not known how this would affect the nesting or migrating birds.

Many people also worry that if fields go in the reservoir, there will be pressure to expand them in the future. They cite a compromise Bloomberg brokered in 2003 that scaled down a plan for recreational facilities in Staten Island's Bloomingdale Woods. Elected officials there are still pushing to build more fields in the wetland forest. "With easy access, you are always fighting a battle to prevent a ball field," said Phillips.

They have also raised concerns about the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of building sports fields in the reservoir. Although fields would go in the driest part of the basin, the reservoir is a depression lined with clay specifically designed to hold water. Would ball fields be drowned in a heavy rain?

In addition, opponents point out that development in the basin seems to contradict PlaNYC's goal of making the city more environmentally sustainable by preserving and adding natural areas to cool and clean the air and absorb stormwater runoff. The reservoir is in the watershed of Jamaica Bay and the sewershed of Newtown Creek. When heavy rains overwhelm the sewage system, untreated sewage spills into both bodies of water. "Any increase in the amount of impervious surfaces at Ridgewood Reservoir would result in an increase in stormwater and consequently an increase in combined sewage overflows that already pose a serious burden on the city's waterways," said Andrew Rafter in testimony for the environmental group Riverkeeper.

Rushing Ahead?

Further complicating the politics of the issue is distrust by some citizens and advocacy groups of the city government and the parks department stemming from earlier parkland conflicts, such as the taking of Macombs Dam Park for the new Yankee Stadium even before most residents were aware it was happening, and the controversial redesigns of Washington Square and Union Square parks.

Some supporters of the ball fields see signs of NIMBYism in the impressive line-up of political force against developing the reservoir because several prominent politicians live in large houses abutting Highland Park.

"My fear is that a lot of this is just delay tactics," said Benke of EBC. "That money is ephemeral. We're of the opinion that the time to strike is now. Do it now and find a way to use those 10 acres or show us an actual plan to reconfigure the park that can be accomplished over a short period of time."

Others disagree, believing any plan to develop the park needs further consideration. They worry that the administration, in the push to put PlaNYC's initiatives into effect before Bloomberg's term ends, may not be fully considering all the options. Does it make sense to breach the reservoir walls and disrupt this urban experiment with nature when there may be other nearby sites that would be less expensive and intrusive to develop? Is the project being driven by the availability of PlaNYC money and not by a more holistic look at what works best where?

"I don't think we've done a good enough study of open space availability throughout the city," said DiPalermo of New Yorkers for Parks. "There is no real master plan for parks and open space."