Tuesday, June 10, 2008

So where do we stand with the Parks Department's Master (mwahahaha) Plan?

In a sense, the person who proposed a dog run for Fort Washington Park did us all a favor. She woke us up. We started making calls to Jennifer Hoppa. Jennifer Hoppa very responsibly informed us about the upcoming community board meetings, which many of us attended. We realized we needed to attend these meetings in good numbers, and in doing so, established ourself as a significant user group--and became aware of the many other changes to the park that were being planned--which we would probably not have known about until much later, had we not suddenly panicked at the thought of losing our Offleash Hours.

For roughly three increasingly frantic weeks, we organized, proselytized, and even conspiracy-theorized, wondering if there was some plan afoot to confine us and our dogs to some little fenced-in area, to please bicyclists or whoever. I was as guilty of this as anyone. There simply wasn't enough time to slow down and take stock. Once the dog run got past the early stages, it would become much harder to stop.

One thing you have to realize about the NYC Parks Department--and I say this with love--they aren't nearly well-organized enough to plan a conspiracy, let alone successfully execute one. One hand knoweth not what the other doeth, all too much of the time. All of the various recreational groupings that compete for city parkland have, at one time or another, felt The Parks Department was in league with their deadly rivals to shut them out of their rightful due. I know a fair few disgruntled individuals who are quite convinced the parks people are totally in cahoots with the offleash crowd, and are determined to see all our parks go to the dogs--no, seriously. This is their perspective. It's unkind to laugh at it.

In fact, the NYC Parks Department is simply a hierarchy of bureaucrats, many of them highly intelligent and conscientious, coming from a wide variety of educational and professional backgrounds, all trying as hard as they can to maximize parks usage, which in turn allows them to compete for a larger share of taxpayer dollars. Some are idealistic, others pragmatic, and the best would aim for some amicable melding of the two. They are not out to get us. But unfortunately, that can be the problem--sometimes they really don't get us--at all. And it's much more our problem than theirs.

Right now, the people who administer the city parks in Northern Manhattan are looking at a windfall--tens of millions of dollars allocated for renovating and upgrading the northern section of Riverside Park, all of Fort Washington Park, and basically the entire western shoreline of Manhattan, right up to the far north end. The Parks website page I link to above has it wrong--that 40 million isn't just for Fort Washington Park, and it's actually more like 36.5 million. It sounds like a lot of money, but it's not. It ought to be simple deciding how to spend it, but it's really not.

They started off by inviting citizens to come and make suggestions as to how to spend the money, via meetings such as this. They knew full well that some people coming to the meetings would suggest things they already had in mind to do with the money, and others would suggest things they hadn't thought about but might find interesting and potentially useful, and others would suggest things that were impractical and undesirable, at least from their POV. But they had to treat all suggestions as equal--at least in public.

One thing they did that I didn't much care for was to break up these meetings into many smaller groups, each of which had to come up with a list of suggestions--I couldn't help but see this as a divide and conquer tactic, whether it was intended that way or not. In my opinion, it's a method that leads to misunderstandings--it gave dog owners there no chance to protest that the fenced run proposed by one of them would be opposed by most of them.

Anyway, at the end of this part of the process, they had a long shopping list of projects, and not a tenth of the money needed to implement them all--but they knew that would be the case going in. They hired a well-known consultant firm named Stantec to come up with a Master Plan, incorporating many of these ideas into a presentation--and of course to come up with some idea of what each project would cost, and how long it would take to implement.

They never did seriously consider the possibility that the parks only needed more maintenance, and slight improvements to existing facilities (such as more bathrooms, cleaned more regularly, open more often). "Keeping things the way they already were, only a bit better" isn't going to look very good on anyone's resume. And if they told the city the parks were just fine as they were, the city would probably take them at their word--and withdraw most of the money. Not like it couldn't be used elsewhere.

And that could still happen, of course--they are all too aware of it. Mayor Bloomberg leaves office on January 1st, 2010. His successor will have his or her own agendas, and would be fully empowered to reallocate the parks funds to fund them. This was discussed openly and honestly at the community board meetings. They are very much in a 'use it or lose it' situation, and they very much prefer the first alternative. They are going to try and break ground on Phase 1 projects no later than 2009. To expect otherwise would be unrealistic.

So what is realistic?

Their first priority is to increase usage of these parks. The first and most important way to do that is to improve access to them. Most citizens who participated in their meetings agreed this was a good idea. Therefore, we can expect money to be spent on improving all the existing access points--possibly adding new ones as well, but that would be substantially more expensive (exponentially more expensive in the case of the "Canopy Treetop Pedestrian Walkway"), and isn't likely to be included in the Phase 1 part of the plan. Dog owners benefit as much from improved access as anyone else--but will be inconvenienced like everyone else by having access points we already find convenient shut down for long periods of time, while they are being improved.

They are planning to add a new bathroom facility in Fort Washington Park, near 155th Street. Not really needed, but potentially a good idea--unclear whether it will be open any more often than the existing bathrooms by the tennis courts. Not terribly relevant to our dogs--as long as we're allowed to bring them inside with us. It would certainly be a nice gesture if they included a dog-friendly water fountain. I don't think anybody has suggested that as of yet.

Far more interesting (and expensive) is the proposed creation of new trails, which would link into existing ones--we could, potentially, end up being able to walk inside the park, mainly in the shade, all the way to Fort Tryon Park and points beyond. Some of these trails would extend the Manhattan Riverfront Greenway, and would thus be shared with bicycles--but one trail, extending north of the bridge, would be wood chipped, and seemingly ideal for nature hikes, with and without dogs. Put me in the "I'll believe it when I see it" group for that. It's the only real improvement I see in the improvements plan, but it would cost a lot, and is likely to be put off until further funds become available.

With the dog run out of the plan, and Offleash Hours safe for the forseeable future, there are only two immediately-looming potential projects that would significantly impact dog owners.

The first is the upgrade to the kayak beach I mentioned in yesterday's article. Right now, it's a kayak beach in name only. They want to start attracting both kayaks and canoes. It's not necessarily a major problem for us--we use what we shall always think of as The Dog Beach mainly before 9am each morning, and there are only large numbers of dogs there on weekends and holidays.

If kayakers started using the beach regularly, there could be occasional conflicts--but it's far from certain that kayakers will opt to use the beach as regularly as the Parks Department hopes (would you want to leave even a halfway decent kayak overnight down there in a wooden locker?), and in any event, kayakers are pretty nice people on average--and good allies against any future encroachments by jetskiers. And improvements to the beach wouldn't be a bad thing--it was improvements done to make the beach more useable for people that made it more attractive as a dog beach in the first place.

Basically, if the kayakers don't have a problem with us, we don't have a problem with them. Our usage would only overlap for a few hours each week, mainly during the warm months. As long as the beach remains open to all who want to use it, and isn't restricted to a few favored groups, they can go on calling it a kayak beach, and we can call it what it really is. That's my opinion, anyway--hopefully not an overly optimistic one.

And now I've no choice but to get to the one major bone of contention for us in the Master Plan as it currently exists--a project that is likely to be near the head of the queue for the existing funds, will have strong support from a number of very influential user groups, and would have many negative implications for both dogs and dog owners. And plants. And wildlife. And something very beautiful, that took a long time to become that way.

And we're in a very poor position to fight it. But we may have to try.

I'll make that the sole focus of the next article.

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