Friday, June 19, 2009

Reservoir Budget Cut in Half by Parks Dept. by Michael Lanza - Queens Chronicle

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Parks Department cuts more than half from Ridgewood Reservoir’s development funds. (photo by Michal Lanza)

The Parks Department announced plans to slash development funds for Ridgewood Reservoir in its revised capital budget.

Parks officials want to cut rehabilitation funds for Ridgewood Reservoir and Highland Park by more than half — from $48.8 million to $19.8 million. Approximately $7.7 million already allocated during phase one to restore lights and fencing around the reservoir will not be influenced by the cuts.

“If the reduction in funding is not restored or supplemented by another funding source, a new phasing strategy will be implemented,” Park officials said in a statement. “We will implement immediate improvements to address deficiencies in lighting and public safety around the perimeter of the Ridgewood Reservoir. We will then continue to work with the community in designing future improvements.”

Phase one work began in April, under the supervision of Mark K. Morrison Associates, an award winning Manhattan based landscape architecture firm. The company was also contracted to produce the three development plans for public presentations.

Officials said they would not revise the three plans, which were presented during public hearings, until the budget is finalized.

The plans included preserving the site as a natural habitat, filling in the reservoir basins and replacing them with baseball and soccer fields and a hybrid plan where only one of three basins, the largest one, would be converted into a recreational sporting area.

The cut was a mixed blessing for those who opposed razing the reservoir to create ballfields, casting doubt on the most expensive of the propositions.

Four out of five groups of attendees polled during a Queens listening session last month supported plans to convert the area into a nature preserve, according to Community Board 5 District Manager Gary Giordano.

Giordano is pressing parks officials to use funds allocated to the reservoir to repair six ailing baseball fields at nearby Highland Park. The remaining money would fund the removal of invasive plants species, improvements to pathways, and the creation of an education center at the reservoir’s pump house.

“Why put ballfields in what is really a natural habitat when you can reconstruct ball fields that already exist,” Giordano said. “You have fields there now, why invade the natural habitat before you figure out how you can improve the fields that already exist? And by improving the fields that already exist, they would potentially have a much better place to play ball much sooner.”

But Parks officials have argued that Highland Park’s fields are simply too crowded.

“Frequent use of existing ballfields indicates a need and demand for field space, which also does not account for the hours of pickup games that are allowed when the fields are not permitted,” a Parks Department spokesperson said in a statement. “As with all of these projects, we hold listening sessions with community residents to incorporate their input and understand the need to balance interests of preservation and recreation at the Ridgewood Reservoir.

The reservoir’s declining condition became the center of a battle between preservationists and developers in recent years.

City Comptroller Bill Thompson shot down proposals by Mayor Mike Bloomberg to convert the reservoir into a sports field last June, citing the ecological importance of the space.

“This plan flies in the face of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s widely hailed environmental blueprint, which bemoans the loss of the city’s natural areas,” Thompson wrote, protesting the plan. “The Parks Department’s own scientific consultants have warned against disturbing the reservoir, an area they call ‘highly significant for the biodiversity of New York City and the region.

A final public hearing is expected to take place in the coming weeks.

The reservoir, located on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, was created in 1848 to provide drinking water to Brooklyn. But it was converted to a back-up in 1959 and finally taken off-line in 1989. The site is now a natural haven for plants, turtles, fish, frogs and more than 137 bird species -- including eight rare species on the National Audubon Society’s “Watch List.”