This story was reported by Zach Williams.
Where the Parks Department sees a place to store stacks of pristine work gloves, rakes and other supplies, local activists envision a community center. Reconciling the two designs on a Stanton Street building within Sara D. Roosevelt Park remains as elusive now as 20 years ago.
Neighborhood parks received more than $8 million last year as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Community Parks Initiative. That money will fund improvements at three Lower East Side parks and followed a renewed interest in recent years within the neighborhood to secure under-utilized park buildings for community use. Yet, it remains to be seen whether this change in the political winds will result in concrete plans to transform the Stanton Street building into a community center, as well as a number of other under-utilized park buildings throughout the neighborhood.
Regular meetings with William Castro, the Parks Department’s Manhattan borough commissioner, indicate enthusiasm but no firm commitment to the idea, said K Webster, president of the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Coalition. But she remains undeterred.
“It would be such a win-win for the community for the park, for the Parks Department,” Webster said before adding: “There are just so many reasons why you want the resources of that small narrow park to be fully utilized by the community. I know that (Castro) is behind us on this, but the sticking point seems to be ‘Where do I put my storage?’”
Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) and the Hester Street Collaborative conducted a feasibility study in 2012 of the Stanton Street building — along with buildings in Seward Park and on the Allen Street pedestrian mall at Delancey Street. But the obstacles – both financial and logistical – to moving forward with renovation plans remain daunting.
Thomas Yu, an AAFE executive and chairperson of the Community Board 3’s parks committee, said in a phone interview that the storage needs of the Parks Department remain an impediment to turning the Stanton Street building into space for community programming.
The building appeared ripe for change in the mid-1990s as the surrounding neighborhood began its transformation from a gritty, crime-ridden area and real estate values skyrocketed. At that time, the department indicated a willingness to work with activists on transferring use of the building to the community, according to Webster.
Yet there remains no other readily-available facility right now to stow the toilet paper, rakes and other necessary materials for Manhattan parks, according to a department spokesperson. That does not mean that the department would not consider a new use for the Stanton Street building should a new storage location be eventually secured, according to the department.
Renovations could happen “down the road,” Steve Simon, Castro’s chief of staff, told the CB3 Parks Committee in January. Another site was identified as potentially accommodating to the department’s storage needs, he said before adding that no relocation was imminent.
Funding remains a concern as well, according to the spokesperson. Renovations are needed to bring the building up to code and its unclear how much money and time that would require, the spokesperson added.
Webster said the Parks Department should demonstrate its commitment by establishing a firm timeline. “I think that’s a concrete way that we can move forward together and working as partners, and we’ve done a lot of great work together, this really has gone on too long. It’s gotten old,” she said.
There are three other buildings within the park. One houses a city-wide alarm system. Engineering staff utilize another. The third is a valued community resource, according to Webster.
The Bowery Residents’ Committee Senior Center at the park’s intersection with Delancey Street is a “bee-hive” of activity, she said. Older Chinese ladies were busy chatting and playing mahjiang there on the afternoon of Feb. 5, as they escaped the biting cold outside. Brightly painted walls, clean carpets and interior sunshine were a stark contrast to the Stanton Street building where the clutter of supply pallets were visible through a door blown open by the wind. The only visible activity observed that afternoon was a park employee who briefly exited to access a department truck. One man in need of some reading time, sat down on the steps clutching his coat.
More community gathering spaces are needed within the Community Board 3 district, states the board’s Fiscal Year 2016 Priorities. Thomas Yu, the parks committee head, said the Stanton Street building would fulfill such a need.
For now, however, the project remains stuck in the mud of bureaucracy.