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Bronx Park Advocates Try to Spruce Green Spaces With Few Private Donations

By Patrick Wall | August 1, 2013 10:03am
 Bronx advocates will meet next week and call on the mayoral candidates to address park disparities.
Bronx Advocates Want More Park Funding
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THE BRONX — Brandy Cochrane and a few other volunteers yanked out weeds and vines, removed layers of litter, planted flowers and held awareness-raising block parties these past few years until they had transformed tiny University Woods, once rated the city’s worst neighborhood park, into a West Bronx gem.

Along the way, they got a few small grants and some checks from local well wishers, usually for $10 or $25.

Meanwhile, last year, a single hedge fund manager gifted Central Park a cool $100 million.

“We don’t get huge individual gifts,” Cochrane said Wednesday. “A huge individual gift to a Bronx park is like 5,000 bucks.”

Next week, Bronx park advocates will meet to discuss what many see as a disparity in upkeep and funding among some of the city's parks, while calling on the mayoral candidates to give the issue more consideration.

Though The Bronx enjoys the most parkland and the largest park (Pelham Bay) of any borough, it has few wealthy donors or well-funded conservancies, forcing it to rely on City Council allocations and the Parks Department’s maintenance budget, which many consider meager.

“Funding is really the biggest issue,” said Holly Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, which is hosting next week’s meeting. “The Bronx is a poster child for those needs.”

Missing maintenance and repairs — from cracked basketball courts and broken water fountains to untrimmed trees and litter-strewn lawns — are a major concern in The Bronx, advocates say.

When New Yorkers for Parks rated the condition of the city’s large parks this year, none in The Bronx achieved the citywide average score.

While the Parks Department budget got a boost this year, it previously endured several consecutive rounds of cuts, which some say has left it understaffed to care for its 29,000 acres of parkland.

Some parks supplement the city’s limited resources by raising private funds — in The Bronx, one of the few parks to successfully do this is Van Cortlandt Park, which is the city’s fourth largest park.

Its two public-private partnerships — Friends of Van Cortlandt Park and the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy — raised a combined $483,213 last fiscal year through gifts, grants, fees and government funding.

Prospect Park in Brooklyn, meanwhile, brought in $10.35 million last fiscal year.

“We’re better off than the rest of the parks in The Bronx, but we’re not even close to Prospect Park or Central Park,” said Christina Taylor, executive director of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park. “If I could raise in a year what they raise in a week, I think we’d be pretty good.”

Taylor said the Parks Department staff does a fine job maintaining high-priority areas around the perimeter of the park, but are simply unequipped to properly tend to the park’s 500 forested acres and 30 miles of hiking trails.

“Van Cortlandt Park could easily become a hiking destination in New York City,” Taylor said, “but it just needs maintenance to get it to that level.”

Zachary Feder, a Parks Department spokesman, noted that the agency’s current operating budget — $380 million — is the largest in its history, which has allowed it to hire 414 new workers.

He added that the agency uses a system of biweekly inspections and semi-annual audits, along with other methods, to track park conditions.

“The NYC Parks Department strives to maintain all city parks to the same, uniformly high standard,” he said.

Besides upkeep, many parks require renovations or replacements of aging playground equipment, athletic fields, paths, pools and more.

But because the Parks Department does not have its own discretionary capital budget, it relies on borough presidents and City Council members to set aside funds for most capital projects.

In parts of The Bronx, even if council members prize parks, their constituents often demand a long list of social service needs that must be funded before park improvements.

Debra Myers, who heads Friends of Claremont Park and the Mount Eden Malls, said she and her small band of neighborhood volunteers mulch, plant and weed the public park and traffic islands, without financial support from their elected officials.

In return, this year the group has decided not to endorse any of those officials for reelection.

“We’re not supporting the politicians if they’re not supporting the parks,” Myers said.

Though some parks may be overlooked, the Bloomberg administration has invested $4.4 billion in capital improvements to the city’s park system since 2002, adding 800 acres of parkland and 750,000 trees.

But advocates say the Parks Department’s maintenance budget has not kept up with these capital projects, leaving the agency unequipped to care for the new and improved spaces.

“There aren’t enough resources to maintain the beautiful parks that get built, so they decline a lot over the years,” said Dart Westphal, chairman of the Bronx Parks 125th Anniversary Committee. “Then they spend capital money fixing it up again.”

New Yorkers for Parks will host its Bronx meeting next Wednesday, Aug. 7, at 6:30 p.m. at The Point (940 Garrison Avenue).