When one thinks of a national park, the iconic ones come to mind — Yellowstone, Yosemite and Acadia — or the sites of some of America’s greatest natural wonders— the Grand Canyon, the Everglades or the erupting Hawaiian volcanoes. One typically doesn’t think of Queens.
But if the Obama administration has its way, southern Queens — as well as other parts of coastal New York City — will become the poster child for urban national parks.
The National Park Service last Thursday released an extensive general management plan and environmental impact statement on future plans for Gateway National Recreation Area, the federal parkland formed four decades ago, including much of the parkland around Jamaica Bay like the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Charles Park in Howard Beach and Hamilton Park in Hamilton Beach.
The plan is born out of an agreement between the U.S. Department of the Interior — the agency that oversees the National Park Service — and city Parks Department in 2011 to co-manage the federally-owned land, which also includes portions of the Rockaway Peninsula, the Staten Island coastline and Sandy Hook, NJ.
“This draft GMP/EIS is the culmination of four years of collaborative work with elected officials, shareholders, partners and the public,” said Gateway Acting Superintendent Suzanne McCarthy in a press release. “We believe it sets a successful path for Gateway’s future.”
Among the ideas being proposed in the NPS’s preferred plan are increased opportunities for camping in and around the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and means of connection, such as bike lanes and trails, between sites around Gateway like Charles Park and Hamilton Park, which would also be eyed for “small-scaled” visitor centers that may include food and bicycle vendors — a plan proposed by the Parks Department to Community Board 10 in April that was shot down because board members wanted to see the park, notorious for being dilapidated and dirty, given an overhaul first.
Many of the drastic changes were proposed for parts of Brooklyn, such as Floyd Bennett Field, Plumb Beach and Canarsie Pier, and the Rockaways, where Fort Tilden would become a major hub for park activities.
Don Riepe, president of the American Littoral Society’s northeast chapter, said he likes the idea of bringing more recreation to the bay, but hopes the NPS doesn’t ignore it’s first priority — maintenance and repair.
“My only concern is that I feel that there should be a major focus on protecting natural resources,” he said. “The recreation is fine. I think they should get their house in order. I’m asking ‘Who is going to manage it? Are the resources going to suffer?’”
The plan also includes suggestions for improving infrastructure, and dealing with the post-Sandy reality of flood risk. In the proposal the NPS outlines plans to construct new buildings to meet the flood elevation criteria set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and build roads that have sufficient drainage and can be passable in a flood.
NPS’s management plan also calls for increased public transportation — including ferries and better train service — to the area to bring visitors in from Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn.
That excites Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park), who has been strongly supportive of adding more transit options for southern Queens and the Rockaways, including ferry service and reactivation of the old Rockaway Beach Long Island Rail Road line.
“I’m excited NPS shares my vision for continued growth and success for their park and all of southern Queens and Rockaway,” Goldfeder said.
He said better transportation to get parkgoers to the area would mean more efficient transportation options for residents in southern Queens and the Rockaways to commute to jobs in Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn.
“If we create access, it will allow residents to easily travel,” Goldfeder said. “I’m hopeful that this is a good opportunity and a good way to influence the city to be proactive about increasing transportation.”
The plan also stems from the Obama administration’s desire to pour more resources into federal parkland in or close to major cities — part of the White House’s larger plan to bring inner-city children to the outdoors.
In October 2011, then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Mayor Bloomberg signed the agreement in Marine Park, Brooklyn that allowed the two entities to coordinate management of Gateway, which was created in 1972 as an attempt to protect and restore New York’s coastal wetlands that had been severely damaged by industrial pollution during the previous century.
“We are asking ‘How do we connect urban populations to the outdoors?’” Salazar said in 2011. “New York may be the greatest opportunity we have.”
The White House seems eager to move forward on the plans. Riepe said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell — despite only having been confirmed to her position in April — has already visited Gateway to drum up support for their plans.
Public comment is being accepted on the proposal online at parkplanning.nps.gov, where the entire plan can be downloaded and read. Open houses discussing the plan are scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 20 from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Ryan Visitor Center in Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and Tuesday, Sept. 10 from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.