Friday, April 22, 2011

Forest Park’s Future: Parks Dept. Eyes Expanded Uses At Site Some Prefer Be Left Alone by Domenick Rafter - Queens Tribune

With the first signs of spring showing, the closed section of Forest Park Drive between Metropolitan Avenue in Kew Gardens and Woodhaven Boulevard in Woodhaven begins to crowd with joggers, bicyclists, skaters and other locals just enjoying the first warm sun after a long cold, snowy winter. The trees are still bare and little green shoots are the only sign that winter has passed.

Sitting on top of the glacial moraine that slices Queens in two, Forest Park is the natural boundary that isolates the South Queens neighborhoods of Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, Woodhaven and Howard Beach from the more centrally-located Forest Hills, Glendale and Ridgewood. It is home to The Overlook, the Parks Dept.’s Queens Headquarters, an 18-hole golf course and Oak Ridge, the former clubhouse that now houses the headquarters of Queens Council on the Arts and a reception hall that boasts extraordinary views of South Queens right down the beaches in Rockaway and the runways at JFK Airport.

Forest Park doesn’t have the grassy fields that Flushing Meadows Corona Park has or the open marshlands that make up Alley Pond Park, but it is much larger than Queens’ other urban getaways like Astoria Park, Crocheron Park and Baisley Pond Park. Forest Park is a natural oasis without a master plan, but one that has gotten the attention of the Parks Dept., sometimes to the delight of the surrounding communities, sometimes not.

The Carousel

The Parks Dept. is looking for a new vendor to operate the Forest Park Carousel.
The century-old Carousel has been in Forest Park, on a hilltop only steps from Woodhaven Boulevard, since 1972, but since 2008, the carousel has been quiet, shuttered behind a chain-linked fence after former vendor New York One basically abandoned it. Local activists have been pushing the Parks Dept. to find a new vendor, but so far efforts have turned up dry.

The Parks Dept. issued a new Request for Proposals for the carousel, as well as the carousel in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, on April 8. Part of the RFP includes allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages at the Forest Park site, though only with food, and added an optional site for more amusements in the area between the carousel and Woodhaven Boulevard.

So far no interested parties have bid.

“If a proposal includes the optional amusement venue, the Forest Park location would expand to include the open area to the east of the carousel. This area slopes down to the low, wrought iron fence along Woodhaven Boulevard. The Parks Dept. envisions an amusement venue that would include small rides that cater to ages 12 and younger,” the RFP states. The area could also include games and other attractions subject to Parks Dept. approval, a proposal Ed Wendell, President of the Woodhaven Residents Block Association, likes.

“Additional attractions will increase the chances of making a good profit, which increases the chances that our carousel will be up and running,” said Wendell, who has led efforts to reopen the carousel. “It’s a very positive development.”

The Parks Dept. will mandate that the vendor operate the facility at a minimum during the months of April through September from 11 a.m. until sunset, seven days per week, weather permitting.

The contract would end Dec. 31, 2025. All proposals for this RFP must be submitted no later than Friday, May 13 at 3 p.m.

The Trails

The eastern two-thirds of the park, where its namesake forest exists, are covered by nature trails. These trails that meander through the park and connect Union Turnpike to the north with Myrtle Avenue and Park Lane South to the south, are packed with people on any given summer weekend, and the bridle path is frequented by horseback riders, who can often be seen alongside Union Turnpike.

But when the sun sets, a different demographic takes to the park’s trails. The trails that delights during the day have become notorious for being frequented by men engaging in sexual activity behind the thick brush, sometimes only feet from Park Lane South. A decade ago, the men in the park at night numbered over 100, but a mix of increasing police presence in the park, adding more lighting on trails and Forest Park Drive and more public acceptance of homosexuality have decreased those numbers to a dozen or so.

The reputation remains, however, and many who hike the trails come back with stories of strange events they come across deep in the woods.

“I saw a naked photo shoot in there while hiking,” said Nicole Peters, a Rego Park resident. “Some shady things happen in that park.”

George Seuffert Bandshell

Forest Park’s bandshell (above) underwent a massive renovation last year.
Acting almost as the epicenter of Forest Park activity, the Seuffert Bandshell has been home to summer concerts and plays for almost a century. Its adjacent parking lot has played host to special events like circuses. When music isn’t being played on its stage, it becomes a popular makeshift skateboarding park for local teenagers.

The bandshell that some have called “the cultural center of the community,” has been renovated at three times in the past 35 years, in 1977 and 1999 and once again last year when its wooden benches began rotting away and breaking, leading some to get splinters just sitting on them.

With the help of funds from Borough President Helen Marshall and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), even at the time when budgets were tight, the bandshell and its seating underwent a massive renovation in early 2010. The old wooden benches were replaced with more durable steel ones. The stage got a fresh coat of white paint and new trees and shrubs were added around the perimeter and among the benches, creating the image of a concert hall in the forest.

Ridgewood Reservoir

The Ridgewood Reservoir in Highland Park
Though not technically part of Forest Park, Ridgewood Reservoir shares the same glacial moraine on the other side of the cemeteries straddling the Brooklyn border. The reservoir was decommissioned in 1989 and given to the Parks Dept. in 2004.

Since then, nature has reclaimed the reservoir and local residents like it that way; but the Parks Dept. had other plans for it. Unlike the nature trails, the carousel and the bandshell before it, the City found itself at odds with the parks’ neighbors.

“In all our public meetings, never less than 75 percent of the people wanted it to be left natural,” said Community Board 10 member David M. Quintana.

Quintana said the Parks Dept. came in with a “preconceived plan” and never intended to listen to the desires of the community.

“It’s typical of how the Bloomberg administration operates,” he added.

In 2008, then-Comptroller Bill Thompson shot down a plan to redevelop the reservoir into recreational fields on environmental concerns, but approved a bid to upgrade and build new walkways around the perimeter of the reservoir, work that has already begun. But even those plans didn’t fit community wishes. The plan to put a path and new lighting around the perimeter did not include an overpass over busy Vermont Place to an adjacent parking lot that would allow children, seniors and disabled residents to access the site without crossing the thoroughfare.

As for Phase 2, which would include the recreation fields that Thompson killed in 2008, a lack of money and political will has been blamed for its demise. In the meantime, activists continue fighting on the state level, with support from legislators on the Queens side, to have the reservoir declared a protected wetland. Representatives on the Brooklyn side support developing the site as baseball and other athletic fields, something they say is badly needed in their neighborhoods. On the Queens side there are already fields farther east in Forest Park, like Victory Field and the Park Lane South tennis courts in Woodhaven.