Thursday, March 5, 2009

Money Soon to Flow to Reservoir by Ben Hogwood - Queens Chronicle

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A deflated mylar balloon sagging over a tree branch.

A pair of men’s underwear.

Remnants of a Spanish-language newspaper strewn across the pathway.

The observation that every lamp along the path had been broken, or worse, severed in half.

These are just a few of the highlights from a recent trip to Ridgewood Reservoir, the 50 acres of city property that sits, mostly unattended, on the border of Ridgewood and Brooklyn.

But the city wants to take this rough-hewn locale and make it sparkle.

The question now is how, exactly, that should be done to everyone’s pleasing.

Comptroller William Thompson Jr. last week approved a preliminary design contract for the area circling the fenced reservoir. The work includes improvements to the walkway, fencing, steps, benches and lighting. The focus of the contract is to increase public safety and the work will cost an estimated $7.7 million.

In addition, the contract calls for community input to be an integral factor as the Parks Department moves forward with developing the reservoir. The department has $50 million to spend on the land and expects to break ground in 2010.

“Under this new agreement, we have ensured that the public will have a say in the ongoing design and construction process of the rest of the reservoir each step of the way,” Thompson said in a prepared statement.

The city awarded the work order to Mark K. Morrison Associates, and it calls on the company to issue three conceptual plans concerning the overall construction and design of the reservoir. One of the three plans must be dedicated to passive recreation, leaving the majority of the property untouched and incorporating walking trails.

Tom Dowd, a Ridgewood resident and president of the Earth Society Foundation, said he is happy the city is moving ahead with redesigning the perimeter, but has some trepidation with the larger project.

The main concern Dowd and others have is that the Parks Department will fill or partially fill one of the reservoirs with dirt to make ballfields.

And maybe they have good reason. In June of 2008, Thompson rejected a contract that would have funded the initial phase of redevelopment at the reservoir. That deal, also with MMA, included such a proposal.

Filling a basin entirely would require as many as 27,500 large truckloads of dirt to be transported through adjoining neighborhoods. Even a partial fill would require 11,700 truckloads of dirt, disrupting traffic and causing noise pollution in the area for years, according to Thompson.

Environmentalists have argued that if the city wants more ballfields, it should use the funds it has to put them in the surrounding Highland Park. However, a spokesman for the Parks Department said the money it has is for work at the reservoir only.

Dowd wants to see the reservoir preserved as much as possible to protect its environmental and historical significance.

The reservoir originally consisted of three large water basins that provided water to Brooklyn from 1858 until 1959. The water aided the development of Ridgewood, as breweries opened there, taking advantage of its high quality.

From 1960 until 1990, the city used one of the three basins as a backup water supply. Since then, the property has been unused, has reverted over the years to a largely unkempt state. The two outer basins have filled in with grass, as well as forests of grey birch and black locust trees. A freshwater pond remains in the middle basin, surrounded by reeds.

Some 137 species of birds, including eight rare species, use the reservoir throughout the year, according to the National Audubon Society. A 2005 study conducted by the Parks Department notes that the reservoir is a stop along the Atlantic flyway, one of four main migration routes in America used seasonally by millions of birds, bats, butterflies and dragonflies.

Dowd said the reservoir, if largely preserved, could provide insight into its flora and fauna for thousands of students in the area.

Also, the Ridgewood Reservoir-Highland Park Alliance, a group in favor of protecting the location, has applied for a $3,500 grant to place metal signs around the reservoir that would emphasize the history and importance of the water system.

Finally, Dowd wants to introduce an element that will both pay homage to the past and prepare for the future. There are two buildings on the site, and he would like to transform one of those into a museum for water. He would like the other to be transformed into an institute that would allow students to learn about photovoltaic cells — solar panels that transform light from the sun into energy. Ridgewood is an ideal location for this technology as hundreds of structures have flat rooftops that could accommodate the panels, he said.

Thompson said he and the Parks Department have established a protocol within the contract that requires the public to have a say in the design process prior to and after the initial design concepts are created.

Dowd hopes that is the case, and that the city listens to the residents.

“What I see is that if this project is done correctly, it will have a tremendously beneficial effect on housing values in both Ridgewood and Cypress Hills” in Brooklyn, he said.

“If it’s done badly, it will just be a political boondoggle.”

Photos by Ben Hogwood