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Some Large Bronx Parks Have Improved While Others Suffer, New Report Says

By Patrick Wall | March 12, 2013 9:30am

THE BRONX — Claremont Park, once coated with litter and pocked with glass shards, now is spic-and-span thanks to a small army of volunteers.

But Seton Falls Park, previously a pristine preserve of mature trees and gentle streams, now is strewn with “illicit litter” and marred by graffiti.

And St. Mary’s Park, while still a popular retreat in the heart of the South Bronx, has become blighted by cracked paths, crumbling staircases, net-less tennis courts and bench-less bleachers.

Those are a few of the findings in a new report by New Yorkers for Parks that graded 43 of the city’s large parks, including five in The Bronx, and noted improving conditions overall, but also examples of parks in decline.

(The survey did not cover parks larger than 500 acres or certain types, such as golf courses, beaches or ones undergoing big capital projects.)

Three of the Bronx parks improved since the nonprofit’s last survey in 2010, with Claremont springing from a D to a B.

Two fared worse, with Seton Falls crashing from the top spot in the city in 2010 to second from the bottom in 2012, the year covered in the latest report.

Overall, a greater share of parks citywide earned As and Bs in 2012 and the average score climbed from 85 to 88, even as the Parks Department’s budget has shrank.

But in The Bronx, the average park score — 81 — remained flat, with four of its five graded parks confined to the bottom quarter of the ranking and none achieving the citywide average score.

“I don’t want to overstate it,” said Holly Leicht, the park advocacy group’s executive director, “but it has been the lowest scoring borough.”

Leicht cautioned, though, that the report’s sample size is too small to draw broad conclusions and that conditions can vary widely among parks even in the same borough, based on factors such as park terrain and community involvement.

For example, Seton Falls in Eastchester consists mainly of natural areas that can be more difficult to maintain, which contributed to its low score, Leicht said.

Meanwhile, Claremont’s namesake park, with its formerly litter-layered lawns and paths, benefited not from an influx of funds but from a surge in volunteers, Leicht explained.

“We look at that as one of the biggest success stories between the 2010 and 2012 reports,” she said.

Soundview Park, a 205-acre waterfront park with $25 million in ongoing restoration projects, also earned a B.

So did Crotona Park, a park north of Morrisania with a lake, a popular summer music series and the borough’s largest pool.

“It’s really an unappreciated gem in New York City,” said Teofilo Colon, Jr., a member of Friends of Crotona Park.

Seton Falls plummeted in the rankings because surveyors found broken glass, used condoms, drug items and graffiti along the park’s paths and natural areas during last year’s summer inspections.

St. Mary’s challenges stem partly from its hilly terrain, whose erosion requires extra care, and the fact that no local volunteer group has adopted the park, Leicht said.

Neighborhood park groups not only help with basic upkeep, but they also can spur local elected officials to direct discretionary funds to the park and encourage maintenance crews to stay vigilant.

“When they know the community cares,” said William Casari, a member of Community Board 4’s parks committee, “they know there’s going to be somebody watching or complaining or calling 311.”

But St. Mary’s also suffers from a larger, citywide problem, the report says.

The Parks Department has had to do more with less, as its budget has decreased from $367 million in fiscal year 2008 to $338 million in the current fiscal year, leading to job cuts.

Some of those positions may soon return, as the mayor’s preliminary budget for next fiscal year calls for 414 new parks employees, mostly in maintenance.

“That will certainly help,” Leicht said. “But even with those additional staff, there’s still a backlog of mid-term maintenance, like cracked pathways and asphalt courts and hillsides eroding” — all issues affecting St. Mary’s park.

Some high-profile parks in Manhattan and Brooklyn have turned to private donors for extra funding, but so far The Bronx has attracted relatively little private investment in its parks.

“We shouldn’t have to rely on public-private partnerships to provide bleachers or basic services,” said Mychal Johnson, a Mott Haven resident and Community Board 1 member.

A Parks Department spokesman said that more than 1,000 workers clean and maintain Bronx parks during the peak summer season and that all parks are regularly inspected by staff and special auditors.

“So far this fiscal year, more than 87 percent of Bronx parks have met our stringent standards for overall condition,” said spokesman Zachary Feder. “More than 90 percent met our standards for cleanliness.”