City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. rejected a Parks and Recreation Department contract last week that would have funded the initial phase of redevelopment at Ridgewood Reservoir.
The $3.3 million deal with Mark K Morrison Associates was rejected to allow additional time for the Parks Department to respond to the comptroller’s “concerns pertaining to potential scope changes due to environmental review uncertainties and for administrative issues,” according to a letter from the comptroller’s office to the Parks Department.
The contract was drawn in part to fund the redevelopment design process, part of which would have included environmental assessments by Morisson Associates, to measure the potential impact of their design proposals.
Among them was a proposal to partially or completely fill one of the reservoir basins — part of a broader $50 million project currently under consideration by the Parks Department to convert some of the land into athletic fields.
According to the comptroller’s letter, such a proposal would require 27,500 “large truckloads” of dirt to be transported though adjoining neighborhoods if the basin were filled entirely. Even a partial fill, per one of the proposals outlined in the contract, would require 11,700 truckloads of dirt.
“Either of these options would have significant negative impacts to the areas surrounding the park, which will have to bear the brunt of the noise emissions and traffic disruptions for many years,” the letter reads.
Thompson encouraged the Parks Department to conduct environmental reviews regarding the possible effects of such a plan before assigning any design contracts.
In a statement, the Parks Department said that it has “not been able to begin the design process or do an environmental assessment without the design contract.”
But Thompson has suggested that an allowance for an Environmental Assessment Statement be “included as a separate fee in any proposal” so that potential impacts can be studied before other money is awarded.
“The city routinely conducts environmental assessments with a separate contractor prior to design and/or construction,” a spokesperson for the comptroller wrote in an email. This is done, in part, to avoid “the conflict of interest issue that may arise when a designer also performs an EAS” and gives the city “a clearer understanding of a project’s full cost before significant amounts of money have been committed and spent.”
The fate of the Ridgewood Reservoir has been a concern among environmentalists and others around the community since word of its possible redevelopment first surfaced in 2004, when the property was handed over to the Parks Department.
Straddling the Brooklyn-Queens border, the reservoir originally consisted of three large water basins that provided water to Brooklyn from 1858 until 1959.
From 1960 until 1990, the city used one of the three basins as a back-up water supply. Since then, the 50-acre property has been unused, having reverted over the years to a largely unkempt state. The two outer basins have filled-in with grasslands, and young forests of grey birch and black locust trees, among other vegetation. Meanwhile a freshwater pond remains in the middle basin, surrounded by reeds.
According to the National Audubon Society, some 137 species of birds — including eight rare species — use the reservoir throughout the year. A 2005 natural inventory study conducted by the Parks Department also notes that the reservoir is a stop along the Atlantic flyway — “one of four main migration routes in America” — a route used seasonally by millions of birds, bats, butterflies and dragonflies.
In 2004, the city turned the land over to the Parks Department to be developed as a public park. But critics argue that the adjacent and underused Highland Park should be renovated and the natural splendor of the reservoir preserved as a nature sanctuary.
The issue is a continuing concern for Thompson, who, in May, co-authored an Op-Ed for The New York Times along with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., praising the virtues of this “accidental wilderness,” which they dubbed “a place as close to unspoiled nature as you’re likely to find anywhere within city limits.”
Others, like Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, have agreed, publicly opposing the idea of converting the land into ballfields.
Christina Wilkinson, secretary of the Juniper Park Civic Association, who has been at the forefront of efforts to preserve the reservoir, said the comptroller’s efforts were laudable. Earlier this year, she had arranged for Thompson to take a tour of the disputed land.
“I think it's fantastic that the comptroller is questioning the environmental as well as the economic impact of the plan on the city,” she said, “rather than just rubber-stamping it.”