INWOOD — Uptown parents are crying foul after the Parks Department drastically cut hours at a local nature center without warning last week, just days before school lets out for the summer.
For many uptown parents, a trip to the Inwood Hill Park Nature Center is a regular part of their week. So when the department announced it would reduce the center’s hours from six days a week to four hours each Saturday and Sunday through Oct. 3, except for scheduled group appointments during the week, uptown residents cried foul.
"This is the worst time to make changes like this," said Mario Cortes, 32, who has twin 5-year-old sons he takes to the park each day. "Kids are about to get out of school and with the economy the way it is our choices are limited."
In addition to the new hours throughout the fall, Parks also plans to keep the facility closed completely from Nov. 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013 with the exception of group appointments and scheduled activities, said Sarah Aucoin, the Director of the Urban Park Ranger division, which runs the center.
No announcement about the change had been publicized or announced during public Community Board 12 sessions.
"This is consistent with a long history of cuts for children’s activities in Inwood Hill Park," said Inwood parent Camille Horowitz, 43, as she walked through the park. "It’s not a surprise that they would cut the hours and it’s no surprise they didn’t warn anyone."
Parks officials said they tracked usage hours for several months and determined that the changes made most sense "in order to develop the most efficient citywide operation plan possible with current budget restraints," Aucoin said.
"Our priorities are to get Rangers out into the Parks leading programs, classes, activities and tours; patrolling natural areas and interacting with the public; and responding to animal and other conditions while still operating and promoting our nature centers in a manner consistent with public demand,” she wrote in an email.
Details about the budget shortfall the agency faces were not immediately available.
Parents said they blame themselves in part for infrequently signing in when visiting the nature center and said they would not accept the changes without a fight.
Many promised to send letters of complaint in protest, arguing the closure would have an unintended consequence of creating insecurity throughout the park.
"The impact of a closed Nature Center has far greater impact than imagined,” one parent wrote to the department and posted on InwoodKids, a popular uptown parenting email list. "The area begins to feel neglected and off-the-radar. Criminal activity increases because nobody is around and quality of life decreases."
Parents said they have not received a response from the department about the cuts and some spoke of organizing a "soda sale" outside the center in order to protest the cuts and bring attention to what they said is the hypocrisy of the city initiatives that champion healthier lifestyles for families while cutting educational and recreational resources like the center. No definite plans have been made yet, parents said.
For now, parents can learn about the center’s scheduled event, including its Weekend Adventures programs on the Parks Department website.
To schedule a Custom Adventure or Natural Classroom program, visit the Parks Department Rangers page.