Locals Push for Rundown Astoria Schoolyard to Become Public Park

By Jeanmarie Evelly on October 31, 2013 8:39am 

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 The group is hoping to revive a plan to turn the asphalt schoolyard into a community park.
Residents Petition for Playground at I.S. 126
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ASTORIA — A group of Queens community members are trying to revive a plan to turn a cracked, concrete schoolyard on 21st Street into a public park.

The schoolyard at Astoria middle school I.S. 126 is currently little more than an asphalt lot with a lone, broken and net-less basketball hoop.

But just few years ago, the city had grander plans for the space — it was one of hundreds across the city chosen to get a makeover as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC Schoolyards to Playgrounds initiative, which renovates schoolyards into public parks.

The funding for the project, however, was lost in 2011 due to budget cuts and has yet to be restored, advocates said — meaning students, their parents and the community around I.S. 126 are still waiting for their playground.

"It seems unfair," said Michelle Noris, a member of the Community Education Council for District 30, who is helping to advocate for the renovation by starting an online petition that calls on the city's elected officials to re-fund the project.

Of the 290 schoolyards that were originally slated to be upgraded under the program, 229 have been converted so far, according to city data. The plans for the others were not immediately clear.

I.S. 126 serves a diverse body of students, with an enrollment of about 500 kids, including a new Gifted & Talented program that began this year. The building also houses one of the city's Alternate Learning Centers for students with suspensions.

The Long Island City YMCA also runs an afterschool program at I.S. 126, and executive director Ebony Conely-Young said they would be happy to see the schoolyard get a playground.

"Anything that would help to enhance the physical space, that would allow kids to be more active, is always what we're going to advocate for," she said.

While the park would serve I.S. 126 students during the day, schoolyards that get renovated under the Schoolyards to Playgrounds initiative are then opened to the public after school and on weekends.

Melissa Lee is a parent of two children at P.S. 166 who may attend I.S. 126 for middle school. But she's also a physician who runs a practice across the street from the school, and said she would love to see a new park in the area where her patients and other community members could exercise.

"We don’t really have anything like this that’s close in our area," she said, saying it's sometimes difficult for seniors to travel to parks located further away. Adding a track at I.S. 126, for example, would give adults and children somewhere to run or walk laps, she said.

"It's so rare to actually have space in New York City — let's make the most of this space," she said.

Advocates for the park already have blueprints and design plans that include ideas like adding a track and synthetic turf field, a learning garden and real basketball courts.

A spokesman for the Parks Department said in an email that the site could still be renovated under the Schoolyards to Playgrounds initiative "should funding become available."

Noris estimates they need $110,000 for the project. Queens Community Board 1 has included it on its list of budget proirities for the next fiscal year, and Noris said they're hoping Astoria's next City Council member and other elected officials will allocate funding.

"We really need to be able to show our legislators that this important," she said.

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