LAST INNING FOR PUBLIC PARKS ON RANDALL'S ISLAND
Manuel Torres looks to score a hit for the
Spanish Harlem-based baseball team of Camaradas El Barrio. The Water
Park development and privatization of dozens of baseball fields in
Randall’s Island would severely curtail free access to baseball fields
for surrounding communities of East Harlem and the South Bronx. Photo:
Rafael Merino Cortés/ grupoHuracán
lthough Commissioner Benape claims the proposed Randall’s Island Water Park will serve a “park use,” it will only do so minimally and for a cost. With this development, residents are concerned over the lost of more public parklands to privatization. In addition, the environmental concerns are being voiced just as loudly, especially when thinking of the rampant development already underway or proposed in the area, could cause a traffic and ecological nightmare.
However, there other ethical concerns regarding the proposed Water Park development.
The New York Times reported today on the alarming friendship between New York State Senate’s majority leader Joseph L. Bruno and Jared E. Abbruzzese, an investor with Empire Racing Associates, which was awarded an operating franchise for the state’s thoroughbred horseracing tracks.1
According to the Times, Abbruzzese’s nanotechnology firm, Evident Technologies, also received $500,000 in state money and had help from Bruno in obtaining $2.5 million in state aid for a joint development project.
What does any of this have to do with a Water Park on Randall’s Island?
Abbruzzese is also an investor with the Aquatic Development Group, “winners” of a sole-source bid for a 35-year Water Park concession contract in 2000, which City Comptroller William Thompson called a “seriously flawed process.”
Aquatic recently bailed out of a public hearing at the New York City Industrial Development Agency regarding $215 million bond funding. With no explanation, the company announced that it would instead seek private funding for the project.
When asked, the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation said the Aquatic Development Group withdrew its bid for Industrial Development Authority (IDA) bonds simply because it had secured private funding. When asked to name those funding sources, however, The Foundation admitted that Aquatic is still in the process of acquiring investors.
Perhaps the decision had more to do with media reports about Aquatic’s prior brush with bankruptcy in the 1990s, or the failure of its president, Herb Ellis, to repay a $1.5 million loan to the Albany IDA.
BETWEEN A PARK AND A HARD PLACE
a recent meeting held in East Harlem, Manhattan Borough President Scott
Stringer, Councilwoman Melissa Mark Vivertio and other legislators
continued their dialogue between the community and advocates in an
attempt to find a middle ground regarding the Randall’s Island Water
Park development. Photo: Marina Ortiz
The New York City Parks Department apparently shares the same lack of integrity. Under the leadership of Parks Commissioner Adrian Benape, thousands of acres of public land has been systematically turned over to private developers and, in many cases, permanently removed from free and open public use.
On Randall’s Island, the Water Park has grown from 12 acres to 26 acres, an area covering the entire northwestern side of the island. Construction for the site will greatly limit the number of ball fields, with the remaining fields most likely awarded to grandfathered permit holders from out-of-district private schools.
Although the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation claims that view of the river will not be blocked by the perimeter fencing or the water park (which will sit on sunken land), the developer’s description of “water slides rising 80 feet into the skyline” does not provide much reassurance. Certainly, public access to the shore will be severely hampered.
With an estimated 1.3 million visitors each year, the Water Park will greatly increase vehicular traffic to and from the island -– thus releasing billions of particles of asthma-producing gas fumes and carcinogens into the atmosphere over the island and surrounding areas.2
While the Foundation dismisses claims of environmental risk or damage as “nonsense,” it is a simple fact that that many visitors will also produce that much more pollution –- not to mention noise, crime, garbage and contaminated groundwater draining into the nearby Harlem River. Provisions to preserve tranquility in nearby parkland, meanwhile, have never been offered.
The Foundation claims the Water Park is needed to help fund island maintenance and sports activities, yet it provides no details or reports on such financing. Likewise, the Foundation does not provide financial data on concert/stadium event revenue.
Aside from the proposed 300 (presumably entry-level) jobs and a few free tickets tossed to targeted agencies under the advisement of Community Board 11, the Water Park will provide no direct and lasting financial benefit to neighboring communities.
Clearly, we cannot support a Water Park on Randall’s Island.
We should oppose what Comptroller Thompson called "a process that is flawed and inconsistent with well-established principles of public bidding." This plan defies sound environmental and fiscal logic. While it may generate millions of dollars each year for its developers and investors, it will have little benefit to the East Harlem community. Most importantly, we should not bargain with the little public parkland we have left without due process.
1 -- “Ties Run Deep Between Bruno and an Investor” by MIKE McINTIRE, published on December 16, 2006 in The New York Times.
2 -- This potential health concern would be atop of the conditions already causing an alarming rate of asthma cases in East Harlem (Read “Asthma, Poverty and Pollution” by Natalie Olivero, September, 2006, Gotham Gazette). The Water Park project would begin construction around the time the mega-outlet development of East River Plaza on 116 Street near the F.D.R. Drive is mid-way or finishing construction. Also, the proposed residential and commercial project formally known as “Uptown NY” (from 125 Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues to 127 Street) would also be under construction around the same time. The Department of Motor Vehicles has yet to release an estimate of how much traffic would increase in the East Harlem area once the Water Park, East River Plaza and the 125 Street Development are in operation. It is safe to assume there will not be a decrease in traffic.
MARINA ORTIZ heads East Harlem Preservation