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Electric Zoo Deaths Raise Concerns on Private Use of Public Parkland

By Jeff Mays | September 4, 2013 8:12am
 The annual three-day music festival on Randall's Island was canceled a day early, on Sunday, after two young concert-goers died from what authorities believe are drug-related causes.
Electric Zoo Plagued by Deaths, Drugs, Sexual Assault Claims
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HARLEM — The city should rethink the way it approves the use of public parks for private events following the Electric Zoo fiasco on Randall's Island over the weekend, uptown politicians and advocates said.

City officials and event promoters canceled the electronic music festival Sunday following the Saturday deaths of Jeffrey Russ, 23, and Olivia Rotondo, 21, from apparent drug-related overdoses, according to police. MDMA, known on the street as Molly, played a role in the deaths, police said.

A 16-year-old girl also told police she woke up under a van Friday at 11 p.m. with her pants unzipped. Police say she also had scratches and bruises and told authorities she had been drinking.

"The tragedy at the Electric Zoo event on Randall's Island again underscores why we need to look more critically at these private events happening in our parks," said East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, chairwoman of the Council's parks committee.

"Randall's Island is routinely taken over by these private events where the benefit to the city and to the public is often unclear, and oversight is limited."

Police also said 31 people were arrested on charges ranging from drug sales to disorderly conduct. Four others were admitted to the ICU at Metropolitan Hospital.

"We are working closely with the New York City Parks Department, NYPD and concert promoters Main Event to handle the aftermath," said Andrew Vacca, a development associate with the Randall's Island Park Alliance.

Parks Department spokesperson Philip Abramson called concerts in the park "part of the fabric of New York City for decades" and said Randall's Island has been hosting concerts since 1936.

"This year, the event organizers worked with the Parks and Health Departments on a robust health and safety plan, which was fully implemented," Abramson said in a statement. "The city is always reviewing procedures and we are examining what occurred at this weekend's event."

But some residents of East Harlem and the South Bronx have long protested the use of the island for various functions, including concerts, saying they don't get full use of what should be a recreational outlet.

"It is public parkland and it's supposed to be used for public use," said Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation, which has been a party to two lawsuits to stop the city from renting out the ball fields at Randall's Island to private schools.

More recently, groups have been fighting the expansion of tennis courts on the island operated by SPORTIME, a private tennis center that includes an academy run by tennis legend John McEnroe.

"There is devastation to the parkland and no financial transparency or accountability. We don't know where those monies go. The deaths show it's an uncontrollable situation that doesn't belong in this community," Ortiz said.

Matthew Washington, chairman of Community Board 11, said the weekend concert caused him to "question how we utilize that space and program that space." He called for more oversight.

"For large performances there should be a place for the community board formally to have a say in what's happening, to ask questions and express concerns but also to be able to express support," said Washington. "It is a better approach to have community engagement."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended festival organizer and founder Mike Bindra who, as DNAinfo New York first reported, once ran a Chelsea club named Twilo that was shuttered by the city in 2001 after being accused of playing a role in two fatal overdoses and of hiding unconscious patrons in a secret room without medical care.

"The bottom line here is that you see people here who are doing drugs that shouldn't be doing drugs and you see the fatal consequences," Bloomberg said.