Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Plan for Fort Washington Park--Paved with Good Intentions.

This past Tuesday, at the Parks & Cultural Affairs Committee meeting for Community Board 12, the proposed PlanNYC Improvements for Fort Washington Park were presented by Stantec, the consulting firm hired by the Parks Department. We've seen rougher versions of these designs in the past--this is as specific as they're going to get before they actually start digging the park up. I photographed some of the presentation slides as they were being projected on a screen, and have uploaded some of those images to the blog--which would not be necessary if these images had been put on the official parks website, and made widely available to the public. We were told at the meeting that this had not been done yet, but they'd look into it.

Well and good, but the last real chance for the public to comment on these plans will be on March 24th, at the cb12 general meeting, which will start at 7pm, at the Russ Berrie Pavilion, 1150 St. Nicholas Avenue, between 167th and 168th Street. You can view cb12's March calendar here. That being the meeting where the community board will vote on whether or not to approve the plan.

If cb12 doesn't approve the plan, the Parks Department can still go ahead with it--though they'd rather not have to, in order to preserve the appearance of public support. But by the same token, the community board members would rather not vote against the plan--neither organization wants to tread on the other's toes, if they can help it. And there's no line item veto here. Up or down, yes or no.

It's possible the plan may be tweaked slightly before it's presented at the general meeting. But in most if not all respects, this is what they're putting forward, and this is almost certainly what is going to be built. They still have to get a final approval from the Public Design Commission, but it's hard for members of the public to attend those meetings, which are held downtown, on weekdays.

There are many worthwhile aspects to the changes they want to make. For example, a playground was long overdue, and they have chosen an excellent site for it. There will be working water fountains again (including one dog-friendly fountain), a new restroom facility (which I assume will be open about as reliably as the existing one), enhanced athletic facilities, and a wood chip path to a long-forgotten revolutionary war monument.

But sadly, the plans we saw call for the elimination of quite a lot of open grassy space in favor of pavement--there has been an overriding desire by the Bloomberg appointees controlling this process to build facilities that will have the mayor's name on them--a legacy for an administration that may end next year. That has become increasingly clear to those of us who have been attending the cb12 meetings. We've been listened to politely, and small efforts have been made to accommodate us, but it's very evident that before the public was consulted in any way, the outlines of the plan were already in place, and only public comments supportive of what they already wanted to do were given serious consideration.

It's the largely unsculpted rustic nature of Fort Washington Park that makes it so unique for a Manhattan riverfront area--and so ideal for exercising dogs, or rambling with them, or just sitting and watching the river flow by together, which is why dog people have been among the biggest advocates for leaving this aspect of the park untouched. And you don't have to own a dog to feel this way about it. There is widespread agreement among most people who use the park that the unpaved space is invaluable, and irreplaceable--but it's easy to split us into different 'user groups', each with specific needs and wants, and play the old turf wars game that so often makes our city parks into battlefields. Everybody has a shopping list of things they'd like to have, if they don't have to pay for them (only of course we are paying for them). Open grassy space has few natural constituents. Open green space is always an open invitation for development. Open green space is seen, all too often, as a blank slate for ambitious people to write upon. Which is why we have so little of it.

Still, not all change is bad, and no matter what final form the park alterations may take, we hope the park itself will continue to serve the needs of our community, and that more people can enjoy it. We just don't accept that this has to come at the price of diminishing yet again the places where we can all briefly escape the gruelling monotony of concrete and asphalt--a necessary evil to be sure, but not exactly hard to find in Manhattan.

Everybody should take note--once they start building, the park will be closed to all of us for quite a long time. And it's surely not asking too much to keep us properly informed of the changes that will shut us out of our park for perhaps a year or more, and are being financed by our tax dollars. So I've no compunctions whatsoever about posting these images here. Each image can be clicked on to expand it.

The existing paths will be widened substantially--perhaps by as much as four feet on each side, including gravel shoulders.

I was surprised no parent groups were there to see the final plans for the playground. It's going to be one of the larger facilities of its type in this part of the city, clearly.

They are determined to put a paved path on the west side of the ballfield. They called it a compromise that they went from a 12 foot wide asphalt path to a 7 foot wide asphalt path with 2 foot wide gravel shoulders on each side--so basically, one foot narrower. We dug our heels in at the meeting, and it turns out that ADA accessibility (their stated primary motivation for doing this) only requires a five foot path. So when the committee (with no quorum present) unofficially voted to approve the overall plan only if the path was five feet with no gravel shoulders, they said they'd look into it. And we won't know what they decided until the general meeting, most likely. But a five foot path would certainly be less destructive to the beauty of that spot. They also agreed to look into eliminating some pavement at the north end of the field. But they're not sure they can do that either.

Examples of equipment and facilities they plan to install in the park.

When I say 'paved with good intentions', I'm being sarcastic, but I know the people who are spearheading these changes mean well, even though their motives are at least as much about politics as public service. Somebody has to run the parks, and it's impossible to satisfy everyone. In the end, we get the parks we deserve--most of us let these decisions be made on our behalf, and then complain about them afterwards.

But not all of us.

To Be Continued.....

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I spoke to dozens of people in the park today, and the one thing everyone agrees about is no more paving!

Anyone who wants to help should leave their contact information here in the comments so we can contact you.

Please, everybody, show up at the CB12 meeting Tuesday, March 24th, 7PM, Columbia University Medical Center, Russ Berrie Pavilion, 1150 St. Nicholas Avenue, between 167th and 168th Street, East side of the street.