New York City

NYC ‘Parks Without Borders’ program draws controversy

New York City’s Parks Without Borders program has received glowing endorsements from elected officials, park conservancy groups, and positive press coverage, but some neighbors of the parks think the changes are harmful to the parks and longtime community members.

Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park in the fall.

Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park in the fall. chrisontour84/Shutterstock

A group of Brooklyn activists have been telling the media, elected officials, and most recently a Manhattan judge that their borough’s beloved Fort Greene Park, which sits on land that offered protection from the British during the American Revolutionary War, is once again under siege. This time, however, the enemy comes bearing not guns, but gifts – $10.5 million, to be exact, along with extensive plans to makeover the park’s long-neglected northwest corner. 

In this woodsy portion of the park, which sits across Myrtle Avenue from the Walt Whitman and R.V. Ingersoll public housing developments, the New York City Parks Department wants to replace grassy mounds and a wall, as well as dozens of trees, with a new corner entrance opening to an expansive concrete plaza. They will also repair sidewalks, expand a fitness area and renovate the barbecue area, among other changes.

Local activists, who call themselves Friends of Fort Greene Park, say the bulk of the redesign dishonors the historic vision of the park’s creators, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, as well as the wishes of those who use this part of the park most, and especially the residents living in the housing developments across the street. “It’s so tone deaf to community needs and wants,” said Ling Hsu, who helped to collect over 500 signatures along with video testimony from park-goers asking for repairs but not the plaza, which Hsu believes will be primarily useful for selling things.

The Parks Department has said that the grassy mounds “interrupt” the landscape, and that some of the trees to be axed are an invasive species, “turning the park in on itself,” said a Parks Department landscape architect at a Landmark Commission Hearing. Removing the trees and wall in the park’s northwest corner allows for a new “grand entrance” with an unobstructed view of the park’s 149-foot-tall monument honoring martyrs of the Revolutionary Wars. 

Both the design plans and money came from the city’s Parks Without Borders Program, which has earmarked $50 million dollars in capital funding from the mayor’s OneNYC campaign to improve city parks’ curb appeal by rethinking their edges and entrances, and, in particular, removing barriers between parks and their surrounding neighborhoods. “As New York and other cities continue to grow rapidly and welcome new populations, it’s crucial that our parks and public spaces evolve as well,” Parks Department Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver said in a 2015 press release launching the program.

The Parks Without Borders program has received glowing endorsements from elected officials, park conservancy groups, and positive press coverage. Commissioner Silver himself has described his brainchild in published interviews and essays as “ambitious,” and “profound”; a “powerful new design approach” that will “transform how New Yorkers interact with parks and public spaces across the city – and perhaps, across the world.”

But Fort Greene is not the first community to look this particular gift horse in the mouth. In a handful of other neighborhoods slated to receive the Parks Without Borders treatment, the program has been rife with controversy, inspiring some community members to rally in protest of proposed plans, but sometimes finding they have little recourse to stop them. 

At community board meetings and Landmark Preservation Commission hearings some New Yorkers have described the program as a relentlessly top-down approach that does not take into account their particular park's quirks, needs and histories. It has left some New Yorkers asking why funds are being spent this way and who stands to benefit.

“Whether it’s parents at a playground that are angry that they’re removing the fence” or “Fort Greene, where they’re removing a section of a historic wall,” preservationist and landscape architect Michael Gotkin warned the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2017, Parks Without Borders is “a very controversial program.” 

“It’s a high profile project that pushes out everything else, including community dissent,” said Geoffrey Croft of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates.

A typical Parks Without Borders makeover might move or open park entrances and extend a park’s reach by adding benches and other amenities to adjacentsidewalks. Its hallmark is the removal and lowering of fences and walls, something park officials say makes parks more open and welcoming and reduces crime by increasing visibility. 

Croft said that he has heard from “at least half-a-dozen of these projects” where neighbors have opposed this approach, saying that shorter fences will make their particular parks less, not more, safe by making it easier to trespass during off-hours. 

Two such instances made local news. After the city revealed its intention to lower fences at Clement Moore Park in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, local residents opposed the plans for months, citing historic and safety reasons. 

“The commissioner… seems to be pursuing this ideological mandate that goes so contrary to the needs and the wishes and the history of the people of the community,” a Chelsea community board member told a parks representative.

Ultimately, the community prevailed, with the city allowing the fences to remain as is. 

In the East Village, opposition to the Parks Without Borders treatment met a different fate. That neighborhood’s Community Board 3 voted in staunch opposition to the city’s plan to lower the playground fences in Tompkins Square Park, with community members saying the tall fences protect the play area from discarded needles and prevented spontaneous acts of crime, says Susan Stetzer, district manager of the board. 

The Parks Department moved ahead with the plans anyway. Stetzer said it’s “spending a lot of money to change what isn’t broken.”

When the commissioner "first introduced Parks Without Borders to the community leadership, he said they would get our input," said Stetzer, who once brought her children and now brings her grandchildren to the Tompkins Square Park playground. "He got our input … and didn’t listen to the community.”

Some believe that issues of race and class are at play, pointing out that many of the areas chosen for the Parks Without Borders “showcase” projects are in neighborhoods that were once low-income but have experienced rapid gentrification in recent years. Christabel Gough of The Society of the Architecture of the City, a historic preservation advocacy group, believes part of the program’s unspoken aim is to make these long-neglected parks “a little less shabby” for new luxury high-rises, and especially those that contain a mix of luxury and affordable apartments as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan.

Michael Henry Adams, historian and co-founder of Save Harlem Now!, an advocacy organization dedicated to protecting Harlem’s built heritage, agrees that gentrification is what’s fueling a number of these projects. At a Landmark Preservation Commission hearing regarding a Parks Without Border proposal for Harlem’s Jackie Robinson Park, Adams, a longtime Harlem resident, called the philosophy of removing fences “arbitrary,” and urged protection for that park’s landmarked fences, which contain brick piers built to match the city’s only WPA-era pool built in a minority neighborhood. At the time the pool was built, Adams pointed out, residents in the historically-black neighborhood likely considered them not unwelcoming, but “magnificent.” 

“It’s just nutty to be talking about these airy-fairy things of making the park more welcoming for affluent white people when to do that, you are diminishing and altering an individual landmark,” Adams told The Architect's Newspaper.

Parks department spokesperson Meghan Lalor said in a written statement that sites for “showcase” projects were nominated by New Yorkers, and “the underlying principle behind Parks Without Borders is to make these parks more accessible and open to all New Yorkers.” 

One recent afternoon on the Myrtle Avenue side of Fort Greene Park across from the public housing developments, many park-goers seemed certain the changes were for other people, not them. 

Of nine park-goers who said they lived nearby, seven had heard of plans to renovate the park, and only one expressed unambivalent enthusiasm about the changes. Other opinions included “They should leave the park alone” and “They’re trying to throw us out of the park.” 

“I’ve been here over 50 years, and now they want to take down the trees and do changes,” said a man walking his bike between the mounds. Terri Ball, who has family in the Whitman houses, said she’s happy about the repairs, but hates to see those grassy mounds go. “I’ve attended two or three weddings on the mounds,” said Ball.

Q. Kelley, who declined to give her full first name, talked about the heated meeting a few years back where the parks department first presented their plans at Ingersoll Community Center. They “didn’t hear anything” that people from the public housing developments, like herself, had to say, said Kelley. “The park has been here a very long time and [this part’s] for the people in the projects,” Kelley said. Now, they’re “sprucing it up for the rich people…the people with money coming to our neighborhood and treating us like shit.” 

Kelley added that while the area may end up looking better, and repairs might make it safer for kids to play, there will be “way more stop and frisk here” and probably a dog park.

Rosamond Fletcher, executive director of the Fort Greene Park Conservancy which supports the Parks Without Borders plan, said there are no plans for commercial use. An early rendering of the park design depicted farmer’s market-type stands in the proposed plaza. In recent years, some parks experts have urged more parks to enlist vendors as a way to raise revenue for maintenance, and several of the Parks Without Borders showcase projects do involve plazas. Fort Greene Park currently has a weekly farmer’s market on the sidewalk at the other side of the park, near the mostly upscale businesses on DeKalb Ave.

Fletcher acknowledged that community mistrust is understandable when public spaces receive funds and attention only after wealthier neighbors arrive. But rejecting those amenities for that reason only “further perpetuates inequities of resources,” she said. Regarding the Fort Greene Park plans, she said, “there was more community engagement than typically happens.” This included the meeting Kelley attended in the Ingersoll Community Center, which had over 100 attendees, as well as a followup to that meeting requested by the community. Soon after that, the parks department also set up a table in the park with information about the project. 

In a written statement, Parks Department spokesperson Lalor said, “We know that for many New Yorkers our City parks are their backyards….Parks values community input, which is why the very first step of our capital process is to hold a public scoping meeting to guide our park designs.” 

Meanwhile, the battle in Fort Greene continues. Most recently, Friends of Fort Greene Park joined forces with the Sierra Club to launch their second lawsuit against the city, this one demanding an environmental review of the park plan. Anticipating an appeal, Hsu and other volunteers have already begun flyering the neighborhood. 

Whatever the Fort Greene verdict, says Croft of NYC Park Advocates, the controversy will be far from over.