For years, activists and civic leaders in Southeast Queens have wondered what to do with Idlewild Park. Once a toxic dump and still largely inaccessible to the public, they have been brainstorming about ways to utilize the Rosedale park for the public’s benefit.
Now they think they are on to something. Last week, presidents of three local civic associations toured the park with officials from the Parks Department and the Department of Environmental Protection to lay the groundwork for an environmental education center.
“We have all of this space and it’s just sitting here and the public can’t really use it,” said Fred Kress, of the Rosedale Civic Association.
“We know that there is enough community interest in making some kind of nature preserve and education center here, so we are meeting with the city to get as much information as possible to get this off the ground.”
Even as it is now, Idlewild Park has come a long way from what it was in years past. The 158.7-acre site was designated as city parkland in 1956, but later became a Sanitation Department dump for construction debris in 1970.
The park was closed as a dump in 1976, but in the six years it was open, loads of toxic materials were deposited there and it was declared a hazardous waste site by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Soil tests detected elevated concentrations of lead as well as pesticides, heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. The production of PCBs is now heavily regulated in the United States because of the chemicals’ toxicity and persistence in the environment.
Idlewild Park was eventually delisted as a hazardous waste site and the city restored a portion of the park into wetlands in 1997. Still, it was never made into a full-service park like Flushing Meadows or Forest Park. Only a fraction of its acreage that is occupied by two athletic fields is officially open to the public.
Community leaders are now looking to change that—while keeping the park as natural as possible. Michael Gordon, vice chairman of the Wayanda Civic Association, said that the transformation into a nature center and preserve would be the next logical step in the evolution of Idlewild Park.
“The strange thing is that most people don’t even know this park is here,” Gordon noted. “If we open more of it to the community, the chances that it will remain undeveloped are increased.”
The threat of development has proven to be a galvanizing force for local leaders. Last year, the city’s Economic Development Corporation sold 25.4 acres of Idlewild Park to a private developer for an air cargo complex that would serve nearby Kennedy Airport.
Though parks are normally protected in perpetuity, state lawmakers signed a bill that cleared the way for the sale in 1984.
The sale of the land was opposed by Community Board 13 as well as most local residents, but it was approved nonetheless by Borough President Claire Shulman and the City Council.
Barbara Brown, of the Springfield-Rosedale Community Action Association, said that a small parcel that was annexed to the park in return for the sale did not benefit the community in any way.
“They sold one piece of land and redesignated another parcel as parkland in exchange,” Brown said. “But they couldn’t develop the added piece anyway because it is a wetland that is protected by the state.”
The road to creating an environmental center and nature preserve will likely be a long and complicated one. Kress acknowledged that any kind of proposal is years away and that funding has not even been researched yet.
“We will probably apply for federal funds first, because it’s an education-oriented project,” Kress said. “Then we will seek state and private money.”
There are successful models of nature centers nearby. Alley Pond Environmental Center, in Alley Pond Park in Douglaston, was founded in 1972 by educators who were concerned about the lack of hands-on environmental learning for school children. Tens of thousands of adults and children visit the center each year.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, part of the federally owned Gateway National Recreation Area, also has trails where nature enthusiasts can bird-watch or simply enjoy the fresh air. The center is located on Cross Bay Boulevard near Broad Channel, five miles from Idlewild Park.
Setting their sights on these examples, Southeast Queens leaders say they are determined to see the environmental center through.
They already have the informal blessing of Queens Parks Commissioner Richard Murphy, who joined last week’s tour of Idlewild Park.
“This is really the first step to see what’s out here and get an idea of the lay of the land,” Kress said. Gesturing toward a wide green landscape with a white egret soaring overhead, he added: “As you can see, the potential is definitely here.”