By Maria Rocha-Buschel
A plan to renovate Bellevue South Park that city officials presented to the Community Board 6 Parks committee last Wednesday left neighborhood residents feeling like they hadn’t been listened to.
“I don’t see much of what we talked about in the focus groups,” said Aaron Humphrey, a resident of Straus Houses and a longtime advocate for the park. “We have quality of life and safety issues. In the southeastern part of the park, we have a lot of homeless who sit on the benches there and smoke marijuana. The trees block all of it. We wanted the gate removed to make it more community friendly, and we wanted to maximize the space.”
Community organizers have been pushing the city to make changes to Bellevue South Park in Kips Bay to create an Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible dog run and separate the adult exercise equipment from the children’s play equipment, primarily to discourage residents from the nearby shelters from congregating near where children play. But residents also said that the amount of tree cover in some areas of the park encourages shady behavior and had been hoping that the design would take more of this into account, possibly by opening up the park and removing some of the fences.
“I recall a conversation that one of the goals was to keep it more open so that the transient population wouldn’t stay there,” Kips Bay resident Karen Keavey said. “I know we have limited funds but I don’t see any changes to how the park is now. What we’ve been talking about is the entire ethos and vibe of the park so it’s more user-friendly and safe.”
Chris Crowley, a landscape architect for the Parks Department, said that the “Parks Without Borders” program does aim to remove fences from parks throughout the city but noted that a number of the fences in Bellevue South Park couldn’t be removed because of the changes in elevation throughout the area. Despite the need to keep much of the fencing, though, he said that it might be possible to lower some of the fences from six feet to four.
One resident who has been living in the neighborhood for the last 50 years said that she was hoping for the plans to attract more community-oriented activities with the redesign, which she said would have a lot to do with programming but would also require space allotted for something like a community garden to get people involved.
“The reason that I got involved was to get people into the park who aren’t there now,” she said. “People with children and dogs are not going to come to this park but if you had a community garden, you could get more people in. There’s a lot we could do with access to these other areas.”
Pauline Yablonski, a Kips Bay resident who was involved in opening the temporary dog run at the park, asked if the space currently occupied by the temporary dog run would be available for community programming. Crowley said it was not in the plans to keep that space accessible to the public but added that using the area for plantings was something that Parks could consider.
Meanwhile, Manhattan Borough Commissioner chief of staff Steve Simon seemed perplexed at the level of dissatisfaction with the plans.
“I take great exception with what you just said,” he said, responding to comments about the lack of consideration for community concerns. “The initial impetus was to provide an accessible dog run and in the process to combine the play areas for the two to five and five to 12-year-old children, which we accomplish with this plan. So you cannot say that we ignored what was initially requested. That was the chief request. (Former Councilmember Rosie Mendez) also later indicated that she wanted the basketball court to be redone so that was included in the plan as well. You cannot possibly say that we haven’t included what people asked for because that’s what people asked for.”
Kips Bay resident Karen Lee said separating the play areas was a goal Mendez had separately from what the community wanted for the park.
“What the community asked for was a little bit different,” Lee said. “The dog run was primary. In order to get the dog run, it necessitated moving the playgrounds, but that was not the primary focus. The primary focus was the dog run and the park itself, the pavings and vegetation in the park, the lighting in the park. So I don’t know how Rosie communicated that but she wasn’t representing us.”
One major motivation for the renovations was to create an ADA accessible dog run, but residents at the meeting said they had also been looking for broader changes that would encourage community involvement.
Crowley outlined the major goals for the project while laying out the plans, noting that the Parks Department aimed to reconstruct the playgrounds, resurface the basketball court, provide an ADA accessible dog run and provide ADA compliant access to the park, all of which he said is achieved with this plan.
Multiple neighborhood groups, including the Kips Bay Neighborhood Association, KBK9 and Friends of Bellevue South Park, worked to set up a temporary dog run in a small pit near the play equipment at the beginning of last year but the space was not ADA accessible.
The accessible dog run in the Parks Department plans is adjacent to the temporary spot, located just northeast of the basketball courts. Crowley said that the space constraints didn’t allow architects to create two separate dog runs for big and small dogs but the design includes a fence to create somewhat separate spaces.
The $4.6 million in funding for the project comes from a handful of different elected officials that began with an $800,000 contribution from Mendez. The scope of the project expanded when former Councilmember Dan Garodnick and Borough President Gale Brewer both provided $150,000 in funding. The mayor’s office also announced a $3.5 million contribution to the project during a town hall with Mendez at the end of 2017. Simon told Town & Village last year that after factoring in “soft costs” for the project, including considerations for contingencies, design and construction supervision, the budget is roughly $3 million.