Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Parks meeting--here's how it went

The meeting ended up starting around 7:30pm, and ran well past 9pm. There was, to put it mildly, a great deal to discuss.

I think five or six people out of the 40-odd who came identified themselves as dog owners, but believe it or not, that made us one of the largest interest groups there.

I knew most of the dog people there, and we'd discussed the meeting beforehand, and I don't think anyone came because of my blog post, or the notices I put out at the run, but hey--I tried. I'm sure all of you who knew about the meeting and didn't show had VERY IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO last night. ;)

As far as those who did show are concerned, kudos and shout-out to Andy, Michelle, Caroline, and Jerry--property of Bo, Jack, Smarties, and Max (not MY Max), respectively.

According to John Herrold, one of the managers of Ft. Washington Park, even though they've already hired a contractor, no specific plans have yet been made with regard to how the money will be spent. I have no reason to assume he's not being truthful about that (I've actually met him in the past, back when he was managing Van Cortlandt Park). The Parks people there certainly gave a good impression of caring what we thought should be done with the money (and what we thought shouldn't be done), but this improvements process will bear close watching. We want the park improved with solid well-planned enhancements, not ruined by overdevelopment geared towards bringing in various sporting groups.

Improved access to the river was a major issue. FYI, completely independent of the improvements project being discussed last night, the closed pedestrian bridge at 151st & Riverside is going to be completely demolished, and rebuilt, with a new design that is supposed to be less intimidating for parks users. All the existing access points will probably see some changes--not counting the 158th St ramp/stairway, which has already been rebuilt, thanks to our District 71 Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell, present at the meeting last night. I feel personally embarassed I didn't go over to thank him after the meeting--I've been using that stairway four or five days a week on average, ever since it reopened, and it's made visiting the park a lot easier. I wish people would stop strewing it with broken glass, but that's another subject.

There was a general feeling among those present that Ft. Washington shouldn't lose its rustic character--the Parks Dept. wants to make it more of a destination point for New Yorkers, and that's fine--as long as we don't lose the very qualities that make special, a place to relax and unwind, and just experience the Hudson River in a way you really can't anywhere else in Manhattan. And experiencing it with a happy well-socialized dog is just about as good as it gets.

Probably the only group larger than the dog owners were the gardening enthusiasts, who want more public gardening space. The question of access for the disabled was also dwelt upon in some depth. Much to my surprise, Inspiration Point, a site immortalized by Rodgers & Hart in the song "Manhattan", and long forgotten by most Gothamites, was brought up several times as a candidate for a makeover.

We were split up into several randomly selected discussion groups, which then individually presented their feelings on a variety of issues laid out by the Parks Dept. People mainly wanted simple things--the bathrooms should be open earlier and more often, the signs should be clearer, we should have an easier way to get to Fort Tryon Park from Fort Washington Park, some of the athletic facilities need to be improved.

As John Herrold specifically mentioned at the end, the most recurrent and widespread complaint was that many bicycle riders using the park's multi-use tarmacadam pathway are going too fast, and making people feel unsafe. Contrary to what some riders seem to think, it's not a bike path, and they are supposed to yield to all pedestrians, bipeds and quadrupeds both,

There were a number of friendly suggestions made as to how this situation could be improved; better signs, redesign parts of the trail, speed bumps, and perhaps at points an entirely separate trail for bikes--though where it would go, I'm not entirely sure. I have to say, the bike people present were extremely reasonable and friendly. And of course these aren't the bike people causing the problems, many of whom probably don't even live in the immediate vicinity of Ft. Washington Park. We should not, obviously, lump in the good with the bad. I personally have nothing against bicycles. I had bikes as a kid. It's the owners who are the problem. That was sarcasm, btw. Still fuming a bit over that rather biased New York Times article that ran on July 1st of this year.

For the record, not one credible bicycle advocacy group in the city has come out against offleash privileges for dogs, far as I can tell. They're far more concerned with the real threats to riders, such as cars--and for that matter, cars are more dangerous to our dogs than bikes. Plenty of dog owners also have bikes--and cars. We're all in this together. Let's try to get along.

Would you believe not one person at the meeting complained about offleash dogs? Seriously, dogs were just not an issue for most people, and not a negative issue for anyone there. Which says a lot about how well most dogs and dog owners actually do behave in the park, and how little bothered most people are by our pooches running around in the mornings. Anti-offleash advocates keep insisting that most New Yorkers want dogs onleash--but over and over again, attendance at Parks-related meetings where they could make their arguments belies this. Most people either like having the dogs around, or they don't much care either way. And many seemed to feel safer having the dogs around, which is no new development either.

Somebody (not sure who) did suggest a dog run near the George Washington Bridge--that is to say, down by the river. I'd like to go on record right now as saying we should be opposed to that unless it comes with a rock-solid guarantee that our offleash hours privileges will be maintained. We already have a great dog run in the area. The way these things usually work is that a dog run inside a park means offleash hours are no longer available there (Central and Prospect Parks are the only exception I know of). Our dogs should be able to enjoy Ft. Washington Park--it and Highbridge are the only uptown parks where there are formal offleash hours. I'm sure the suggestion was well intended, but we should be pushing for improvements to the run we have, not for a run we don't need, that could be used to deprive us of the chance to let our dogs run on grass.

Personally, I felt the meeting got a bit confused at points, and the separate discussion groups system was problematic, but some very solid points were made, and it was a positive experience overall.

But again, the whole process bears watching.

Keep an ear cocked to the wind, and your nose to the ground. Let's not lose track of this project.

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