Council Member Mendez Vents at Parks Department Over Lack of Community Engagement

Nike's restricted access celebration at the Stanton Street courts last week.

Nike’s restricted access celebration at the Stanton Street courts last week.

Last week we told you about the new basketball courts on Stanton Street in Sara D. Roosevelt Park. They were paid for by Nike, which also commissioned artist KAWS to create a mural as part of the community project. Nike and the New York City Parks Department celebrated the new courts last Thursday night with a ribbon cutting, basketball tournament and boisterous party inside the park. At the same time, Community Board 3’s parks committee was meeting in a community center just a few steps away from the courts. Board members and City Council member Rosie Mendez were in no mood to celebrate. In fact, they were pretty dismayed about the lack of consultation by the Parks Department on numerous Lower East Side projects.

There was no advance warning of Nike’s event last week. One board member who lives in the area and CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer said they received email invitations to the ribbon cutting an hour or two before it was scheduled to take place.

“I’m coming here to the meeting and Nike is again taking over,” said Stetzer. “They have this whole court in the middle of a residential area, bright lights — but the worst thing is the sound. It is so unnecessarily loud.” Noting that the 5th Precinct approved a sound permit, Stetzer said, “I’d like to know who’s monitoring this.”

Stetzer also said she had difficulty gaining access to the ribbon cutting, which was being hosted by Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver. “They wanted to see my credentials to get in,” she explained. “It’s a public park. I showed him my credentials… This guy came over to me, flashes a police badge and says he’s a retired cop there as security for the parks department.” Referring to a similar situation involving Nike a few years ago on Rivington Street, Stetzer said, “I don’t think they can pay for the field and then come in here and do whatever they want without any communication with the community.”

During the meeting, Terese Flores, a Parks Department manager assigned to the Lower East Side, began furiously emailing her bosses to find out what had happened. When the noise from the courts began wafting into the meeting, she left the community center to go talk with event organizers and police officers.

But as the meeting dragged on, it became clear that the situation at the new Nike courts was just the icing on the cake as far as the community board and Council member Mendez are concerned. Their complaints have, at least to some extent, marred what should be good news — major improvements being undertaken at several neighborhood parks.

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Baruch Playground Comfort Station. Photo by 596 Acres.

At Baruch Playground (a NYCHA property), the Parks Department is spending $1.2 million to renovate the comfort station and to protect the structure from future storm surge. Upon hearing about the plans, Mendez asked two Parks Department employees, “I did not know this work was happening… When was someone planning to inform my office about it?” When they asked who she was, Mendez explained that she represents the district in the New York City Council and said, “I’m a good friend of (the) Parks (Department) and I’m starting to wonder why.”  Referring to other difficulties communicating with the department, Mendez took direct aim at Mayor de Blasio’s administration. “I feel like I used to have better communication with Parks and other agencies during previous administrations,” she said.

Mendez went on to address a concern that brought her to the community board meeting in the first place. The Parks Department is planning to renovate a playground in Tompkins Square Park, near Avenue B. In September, CB3 approved a resolution endorsing the proposal but raising serious concerns about lowering fences around the playground. Creating fewer barriers in public spaces is a central priority of Parks Without Borders, a pet project of Commissioner Silver. The community board resolution outlined safety worries, “especially in light of current issues with a large transient population, drug use (and) some random violence.”

“At one of the visioning sessions,” Mendez said, “I was informed by Steve Simon (chief of staff to the Manhattan borough commissioner) that the playground was chosen for Parks Without Borders, which means they were going to lower the fence. I was opposed to that and I think many people are. I wrote a letter to Commissioner Silver about a month or so ago. I’m still waiting for an answer, so I’m hoping to get an answer soon.”

Mendez said she fears there’s a similar situation at McKinley Playground, another neighborhood recreational area. There has been no public input session, she said, and contractors are indicating that work is already being done to design a new playground with low fences. [A Parks Department staffer said no plans have been drawn up and a public scoping session would take place early next year.]

Mitchell Silver (second from right) at a community meeting on the Lower East Side last night.

Mitchell Silver (second from right) at a community meeting on the Lower East Side last night.

There were some smiles in the crowd at last week’s meeting. Local residents were happy to hear that a $1.42 million plan to renovate the comfort station at Corlears Hook Park is underway.  For more than a decade, the bathroom facilities in the park have been out of commission. Construction is scheduled to begin next fall after all of the necessary approvals are in hand.

Even at Corlears Hook, though, there were concerns. Local activists expected to hear details by now about a revamped dog run in the park. There’s no word when those plans might be presented to the community. There was also grousing about the fact that Parks Department security officers assigned to Lower Manhattan have taken over a section of the comfort station. Finally, Mendez wanted to know why the department isn’t complying with the mayor’s executive order to create gender neutral bathrooms in public facilities. There was no immediate answer.

The community board and Council member Mendez have asked for explanations regarding their many questions. As of today, they have not been in communication with any parks department official prepared to answer their questions.