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Starlight Park Officially Reopens, But Remains Disconnected to Greenway

 Renovation of the park is complete, but plans to connect it to the Bronx River Greenway have stalled.
Starlight Park Reopens
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CLAREMONT VILLAGE — After 10 years and $18 million, Starlight Park officially reopened Friday, an emerald oasis on the bank of the Bronx River replacing cracked concrete and contaminated soil.

The revamped 13-acre park now features a new synthetic-turf ball field, basketball courts, playgrounds, a picnic area, paved waterfront pathways and floating docks to launch canoes and kayaks.

“Honestly, it’s a beauty,” said Juan Rivera, 24, who took his 3-year-old son to the park Friday. Most mornings, Rivera arrives by 9 a.m. to play basketball on the bright green court.

“You can see ducks on the river then,” he said. “It’s so peaceful.”

But there is a problem — the park’s renovation is incomplete, and a timeline and full funding for the final phase of construction have been elusive.

The park sits in a central spot on a borough-long trail of paths and parks, but a plan to build three pedestrian bridges that would connect it to the Bronx River Greenway and help residents across the river access the park has stalled.

Also, 11 acres of planned parkland are still undeveloped.

And, until a comfort station is completed in a few years, the park will have no permanent bathrooms or running water.

“It’s been a strong and long struggle by many community residents to make this happen,” said David Shuffler Jr., head of the local nonprofit Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, at the park’s ribbon cutting Friday. “The fight is not over.”

Starlight Park has a long history.

The site housed a facility at the turn of the 20th century where coal and oil was converted to gas. Between the two World Wars, a large amusement park at the site, which gives Starlight its name, drew thousands to the riverbank.

In the 1960s, a city park was built on the green patch between the river and the Sheridan Expressway.

Beginning in the 1990s, Youth Ministries, a founding member of the Bronx River Alliance, began to restore the river beside the park (which included removing abandoned cars from it) and led then-Gov. George Pataki on an awareness-raising canoe tour past the park.

Prodded by Youth Ministries, the state was set to renovate the park’s run-down ball courts and fields when, in 2003, chemicals from the old gas plant were found in the soil and had to be cleared, holding up construction.

The state Transportation Department, which controls Starlight Park, had agreed not only to overhaul the park, but also to connect it to the Bronx River Greenway, a long-planned riverfront route from Westchester County to the southern tip of The Bronx.

“It’s right smack in the middle of the greenway,” said Linda Cox, executive director of the Bronx River Alliance. “It’s a very critical link.”

Designs were drawn and funding was in place to build three bridges to link Starlight to another park on the greenway and to add 11 acres of new parkland on the eastern side of the River.

But the plan hit a snag: the state DOT could not reach an indemnity agreement with Amtrak that would allow it to build one of the bridges over a train track.

As a result, after the site was remediated, Starlight Park was renovated, but the bridges were not built nor was the vacant land developed.

Without the bridges, people following the greenway north from Concrete Plant Park to Starlight Park must cross a busy intersection and travel along a narrow service road next to the highway that lacks a bike lane.

“Multiple factors make [the road] undesirable even as a temporary greenway connection,” Bronx biker Richard Gans said last fall. “It’s not the kind of thing you’d feel comfortable taking your kids on.”

In addition, construction on a building in Starlight Park that will become the Bronx River Alliance headquarters and will feature a comfort station has yet to begin and will not likely finish until 2015.

Until then, visitors must use portable toilets and bring their own water to the park, which is largely without shade.

“That’s a problem,” said Jose Rivera, 26, who played basketball with his brother Juan in the hot afternoon sun Friday. “We need water.”

The Parks Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, the Bronx River Alliance has launched a campaign to demand that Starlight Park’s bridges and 11 additional park acres be built, which will cost about $35 million.

It has urged the city to lead the project, since the city has an existing indemnity agreement with Amtrak.

“Without this link,” the Alliance wrote in an online petition, “over 100,000 residents will remain cut off from the river and from the new parks, playgrounds, ballfields, and paths along its banks.”

For its part, the state DOT is still negotiating with Amtrak, according to Charles O’Shea, the DOT’s regional director of external relations. (Amtrak did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The state will supply some funding to complete the project, but other sources will need to contribute too, O’Shea said, adding that there is currently “no timeline in place right now” for construction.

“Everyone is excited about pushing on and completing,” he said.