Friday, June 20, 2008

Fort Washington Park 'Improvements': Field of Schemes

Fort Washington Park--the section of it that people regularly use, anyway--is basically a skinny strip of land between the Amtrak rails and the Hudson River. It broadens out a bit at points, then gets so narrow at others that you could walk from the tracks to the river in ten seconds. That narrow.

It seems like so much more than that, because of the river, and the great expanse of horizon it opens up for you. You don't feel like you're in the city anymore, even as you see it looming to the east. It's not so much about escaping (try the Adirondacks, or Montauk) as it is about decompressing. Even if you can't make it down to the river every day, or every week, just knowing it's there lifts a weight off your shoulders, and helps you deal with the crush of urban life. All the more if you have a dog with lots of energy to burn, in which case you'll probably be down there several times a week, if not every morning.

We're a significant user group for Fort Washington Park, particularly in the early morning, but we're not the only one. And one group in particular has a disproportionate effect on the park--even though most members of that group aren't actually in the park for more than a few minutes at a time. Just passing through.

I consider myself a fan of the New York City greenway system. I'm a fan of bicycles, and most of the people who ride them, although I'm not much of a rider myself these days, and I don't currently own a bike. Quite a few other local dog owners of my acquaintance are enthusiastic bicyclists as well. And many many people who ride through Fort Washington Park on bicycles are friendly and considerate, and just out to enjoy the fresh air and scenery, from a slightly different perspective.

And then there are the other ones. Some people get on a bicycle, and they change. They start to imagine they're in the Tour de France, and Lance Armstrong is gaining on them, and they must retain the Yellow Jersey at all costs. And somewhere in the back of their heads is the persistent refrain from a certain song by Queen.

Bicycle bicycle bicycle
I want to ride my bicycle bicycle bicycle
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride my bike
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride it where I like

I know how it is up on a bicycle. You see the world differently, just as when you're driving a car you see the world differently than when you're walking. At least a bicycle doesn't weigh several tons, and travel over 60mph. But that's small comfort when you and/or your dog get hit by one, or nearly hit by one. And that happens all the time, all over the city, and bikers get hurt too, and complain lustily about it. And then go right back into Tour de France mode.

But in fact, there are many more complaints about bike riders than from them. People are very bothered by the extremely high speeds many bikers attain on multi-use park trails, along with their tendency to give little or no warning when they are silently zooming up behind you. It's been a constant refrain at every parks meeting or parks-related community board meeting I've attended recently. Many many complaints about bikes, zero complaints about offleash dogs.

In Fort Washington Park, it's a particular problem, because of its extreme narrowness. There's basically just one blacktopped multi-use path for most of the way. The speed limit is theoretically just 5mph--granting that might be a bit slow, bicycles are commonly seen going four or five times as fast. And in that mindset, trying to beat personal bests, and get into top condition, some bike riders can't seem to stop thinking of pedestrians, bipeds and quadrupeds alike, as inconvenient obstacles they have to get past as quickly as possible. They just are not seeing the same world we are.


They're supposed to slow down and yield to us. They're supposed to use bells or whistles to let us know they're coming, or at least do more than say "to your right!" when they're three feet behind you. They're supposed to dismount and walk their bikes down entrance ramps and across narrow pedestrian bridges that lead into the park. They're also supposed to obey the same traffic laws that apply to cars, when riding on city streets. And too many do none of these things, because they are hearing that damned song in their heads (that or the Rossini theme used in "Breaking Away"). And because, in fairness, they are pushing for a more bike-friendly world, and I don't have any problems with that--as long as it doesn't become a less friendly world for people who like to walk--and their little dogs too.

Let's admit that us dog people push the envelope as well, trying to make the world more comfortable for us. We know what it's like to be frustrated by limitations placed on where we can go with our pooches. We don't see exactly the same reality as everyone else either. The dogs certainly don't.

But we and the dogs are not just passing through. We're staying in the parks, interacting with other park visitors, making connections, taking time to enjoy what the parks have to offer in the way of sights, sounds (and smells). We actually live in the neighborhood--a lot of the bike riders in Fort Washington Park don't even know what neighborhood they're peddling through, nor do they care. Just one more leg in a long race with themselves. And no harm to them, it's a great and noble pasttime. But it's also a serious problem.

And a whole lot of people who use Fort Washington Park, most of them not dog owners, complain about this problem regularly (and rarely about the dogs). And the Parks Department has listened. And has hired consultants. And the consultants have come up with a plan. And the plan basically says "Since some bikers don't share the existing path very well with others, and don't seem capable of following the rules, let's just give the path to them outright, and build a new path for everyone else."

There. I knew we could reach some equitable arrangement.

Okay, that's probably not an entirely fair characterization of their position. I'll muzzle my sarcastic streak for the moment.

The idea is to create a separate path for pedestrians, paved, ten feet wide, and ADA accessible. This path will run near the riverbank, cutting to the west of the softball field. There is a dirt path that currently runs along there, which is most decidedly not ADA accessible.

I know what you're thinking now. You're thinking "How the hell do they fit a ten foot wide paved ADA-accessible path on the west side of that softball field when there's barely room for one person to walk there at points?" I'm glad you asked me that question--they're going to move the field. Yes, the whole field. Tear it all up, and build a new one, that will start sufficiently further east of the river as to allow the construction of the new path.

And since they're moving the field, of course they're going to change it. It would continue to be grass, under the current plan--no artificial turf--at least we'd be spared that indignity. But they'd probably tear up the existing lush carpet of grass, clover, and assorted lovely weeds, and try to make it all grass (which will not last, of course, but they'll try). Instead of three softball/baseball diamonds, there'd be one at each end, and a formal soccer field in the middle--right now, the soccer players have to set up their own nets.

One question I must ask when this gets formally proposed next fall--what happens to all the beautiful mature trees, most of them native species, that line both sides of the playing field now? Will they be cut down? Those trees give wonderful shade to both the field and the existing paved pathway, for much of the year. They are an invaluable asset to the park. The Parks Department regularly declares its firm commitment to protecting our city's trees, and adding to them. But they also do cut down a fair few of them in the rush to construct new facilities.

Sundance and Lady think the field is just fine the way it is.

It's probably not just be the trees alongside the field that are in danger of being declared inconvenient--there's very limited space between the tracks and the water, as I've already mentioned. Space must be made for the existing handball and tennis and volleyball courts, which are also supposed to be upgraded. There's no way they could build an additional path without significantly reducing the quantity and quality of green space down there by the river.

There's yet another downside to all this--having dropped a fair bit of change upgrading the playing field, the Parks Department might very likely start being more persnickety about who gets to use it, and when. When I attended the Community Board 9 parks committee meeting, locals were protesting the proposed construction of an artificial turf soccer field near Riverbank State Park. What they were told was that soccer groups want artificial turf because it allows them to play more games. Grass needs more maintenance, and limits the number of games that can be allowed, because soccer puts a lot more wear and tear on a field than softball and baseball do. The parks people pointed out that if the field were grass, it might have to be locked up much of the time, like many of the fields downtown (actually including some baseball fields as well, I believe). I noticed that there was a lot of emphasis placed on what the athletic organizations wanted, even if people living right beside the park wanted something else.

If the goal here is to create a better athletic facility, that will attract more players, and accomodate more games, the upgraded field might end up being closed to the public much of the time, which would even further limit the amount of green space available to us.

And here's the final rub--might as well just come out with it. Even though parks department regulations say that dogs are not allowed on city park playing fields, at any time of the day or night, that rule has never been enforced much in Fort Washington Park. The field, in its current delightfully overgrown and rustic condition, simply isn't worth the time and trouble it would take to shoo us away. So people jog through there with their dogs, or throw a few balls for them in the morning, and nobody minds, because absolutely nobody else is using the field during offleash hours, except a few joggers taking a detour to avoid the bicycles for a bit.

But in the new and improved Fort Washington Park, even if the field isn't behind a locked fence when there isn't a game going on, there might be serious enforcement of that no dogs rule. Tickets might be written, even if you're there at 7am on a weekday morning, as Max and I frequently are.

Yes Parks Department, I know. We're breaking the rules. Just like the bike riders, only we're not bothering anyone by doing so. So if they get a bike path for breaking the rules, and bothering nearly everyone, what do WE get? Yeah, that was a bit sarcastic, sorry.

The Prospect Park Alliance website, along with that of FIDO Brooklyn, used to say that dogs were only banned from playing fields while games or practices were in progress there. That has recently changed--now that offleash hours are a formally granted privilege there, and in some other city parks, the offleash advocates have ceded the playing fields, and dogs are not allowed on them at any time.

But in Prospect Park, they have the outrageously expansive Long Meadow as an offleash area. In most city parks that have offleash hours, you have substantial areas where dogs can play in the morning, without bothering anyone. In Fort Washington Park, we've got a narrow strip of grass that the Parks Department proposes to make still narrower. The single best place for dogs to run, other than the playing field, is the lawn between the dog beach and the multi-use path--which would become the bike path.

So although we would presumably retain our Offleash Hours in the 'improved' park, between the construction of a second paved walkway to the west, a path reserved entirely for bicycles to the east, a greatly reduced amount of grass inbetween, and no access to the ballfield at any time--you see the problem. We'd have the right to let our dogs offleash, but precious few places to do it. Basically, we'd have the beach--only with a paved pedestrian walkway running right next to it, and an even busier bike path extremely nearby.

And do you really think that some bike riders, particularly in the early morning, wouldn't opt for the pedestrian walkway, with its lovely river views, over the more easterly path set aside exclusively for their use? "I like to ride it where I like."

So anyway, this plan was presented, in its current provisional form, at the Community Board 12 meeting on June 3rd. And objections were raised, but time was limited, and there were many other issues to discuss, including the dog run (which would have given the Parks Department a lovely bit of cover to say they were giving dog owners something in exchange for what we were losing).

Individual parts of the overall plan will be publicly presented next fall, as the Parks Department desperately tries to get this project underway before something happens and they lose the funding. I'll keep an ear cocked, and report any upcoming meetings, and their results, right here on the blog. It's possible that things are not as bleak as they currently appear--as I mentioned in an earlier article, they do not have the money to make everything in that overall plan happen right away. They will have to prioritize. My sense of the matter is that the fact that the area in question is entirely under their control, combined with the fact that the proposed changes would appeal to organizations advocating for bike riders, ballplayers, and the disabled, means that if they're determined to push this through, we don't have much chance of stopping them.

However, if enough dog owners and other park users spoke out against the plan in its current form, and if the Parks Department was nervous enough about losing their window of opportunity, we would certainly have a chance at changing the worst aspects of this scheme, maybe find some alternative method of accommodating bikers and walkers, maybe just run down the clock until they decide they'd rather pursue the more worthy aspects of the overall plan, while they still have the funds to do so. Possible? Yeah. Easy? Hell no. Stopping the dog run was relatively simple--we just had to let them know we didn't want them spending money on a facility we hadn't asked for and didn't want. This is a much dicier proposition, because there will be plenty of people that do want these changes made.

But dog owners aren't the only group that might find some aspects of the current plan not to their liking. In the end, it comes down to emails, phone calls, showing up at meetings, and maybe a petition drive. If there's time. If they don't show us the final plan, then send in the bulldozers, in the grand old Robert Moses style.

Maybe it's not even worth the trouble. Just a little strip of grass down by the river. Started out as landfill, you know. The Parks Department presentation had photographs of the way it used to look. It was an ugly piece of dirt, covered with railroad tracks.

But then they put a park there. And over time, that ugly piece of dirt took on a life of its own, became part of the landscape and the river running beside it, came to look as if it had always been there, since Audubon's farmhouse, since Henry Hudson sailed by on the Half Moon, since the Lenni Lenape fished for Shad and Atlantic Sea Sturgeon there, since before there were any people at all, and wolves ran beside the river instead of dogs. It's partly an illusion, but an aesthetically pleasing one, and scenic beauty certainly is and ought to be a goal for the Parks Department to strive for.

Problem is, they didn't strive for this--it mainly just happened by itself. Yolanda just emailed me about walking Max down in the very area to be affected--

Things are really blossoming: campion (closer to the river itself,it grows), lots of white clover, red clover, thistle, day lilies (all around town you can see these now) certain viburnums, plantains, shepherd's purse, cinquefoil, birdsfoot trefoil, chicory, daisy fleabane....

Nature is always the best gardener, the best landscaper--she doesn't need any money, just time and the elements. And we always have to kibbitz, don't we? Well, there are different ways of doing that, some more helpful than others. As an important user group in Fort Washington Park, we can't be faulted if we advocate for a less intrusive approach--we might even find some allies. But we better hit the ground running this fall.

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