Future of the site still unclear
by Steve Garza
Residents of Brooklyn and Queens joined the Parks Committee of Community Board 5 on Saturday to tour the Ridgewood Reservoir and voice their concerns that plans for the site are being made without sufficient input from the surrounding communities. The group began their 2 hour excursion at the Vermont Place parking area in Highland Park, and then made their way up the stone steps to the pathways that encircle this unique modern ruin, which mother nature has largely reclaimed.
The reservoir was built in the 1850s on the site of 2 farms to hold water for Brooklyn, then its own independent city. It was pumped from Nassau County underground via a series of conduits. The reservoir had three huge basins with walls between them that served as dams. Each chamber had its own pump house which would control the level of water within. By 1868, the reservoir held 154 million gallons daily. The site remained in regular service until 1959. From 1960 to 1989, the reservoir's third basin was filled each summer with water from the city's upstate reservoirs, and used sporadically as a backup supply for parts of Brooklyn and Queens. The entire complex was decommissioned by the city in 1990 and left to decay, but in 2004, the city announced that the reservoir would be turned over to the parks department. The site has been awaiting its transformation since that time. Ninety percent of the more than 50-acre reservoir lies within Queens CB5's boundaries.
Attendees at the site visit included Gary Giordano, CB5's District Manager, David Valovage, Chair of CB5's Parks Committee, Felix Perez, NYC Park and Recreation Manager, Jennifer Manley, Queens Director of the Mayor's Community Assistance Unit, Edward Kampermann and Christina Wilkinson, board members of the Juniper Park Civic Association, Peter Dorosh, President of the Brooklyn Bird Club, Rob Jett, a bird enthusiast who is spearheading efforts to keep the site natural and Charles Monaco, Director of the Urban Environmental Youth Corps, which educates children about nature.
Monaco, a neighbor of the park who grew up on Bulwer Place on the Brooklyn side, led most of the tour. He is also a park historian, and his accounts of the features that Highland Park and the Ridgewood Reservoir offered in their heyday fascinated the meeting participants. He brought historical maps and photos to show how the area once appeared.
Monaco also explained that Highland Park, which sits just adjacent to the reservoir, once featured Victorian Gardens and that at the turn of the 20th century people would stroll in their Victorian garb along the paths between the three reservoir basins. Attendees voiced the hope that perhaps the gardens could be replanted, and Rob Jett suggested that such gardens could be recreated in an area that is currently a maze of dusty pathways and brush heavily damaged by illegal ATV use.
Jett brought a book of photos that he had taken of the park's flora and fauna. Birds, lizards and insects were examined and photographed during the breeding bird survey that Jett participated in this past spring. Valovage, a former science teacher, noted the presence of carnivorous plants in Jett's photo collection.
As the participants made their way down a path between two of the basins, they noticed that pieces of what appeared to be the original cast iron fence were still extant. Most of the fence has been removed and replaced, however. It was voiced by several participants that a replica of the original should be installed when the park is refurbished with the $55 million awarded to it by the city for its conversion into a "destination park".
At this point, the group discussed the listening sessions which were held as part of the process of determining the site's future. One was held on the Brooklyn side of the park at the Jamaica Avenue YMCA and the other was held at the Overlook in Forest Park this past spring. Perez said that the Parks Department has people surveying the site but that the final plans for it have not been determined.
Christina Wilkinson challenged that assertion, claiming the participants in the listening sessions were given cardboard cutouts of various types of athletic facilities to plan out what they wanted to see at Ridgewood, all of which would have required the removal of hundreds of trees and the laying down of concrete and artificial grass surface. "You weren't given the option of a nature center or forest trails during the listening sessions," Wilkinson said. "You were given a choice between handball courts, ball fields, tennis courts, etc. because this site has been chosen to be what the city calls a 'destination park' despite the fact that everyone wants it to stay pretty much the way it is," she said. She also noted that proposed plans requiring the removal of old growth trees were inconsistent with the Mayor's stated goal of adding new trees and green space as part of the 2030 plan.
Perez also stated that online surveys had been conducted to gauge the public's preferred uses for the site, but most of those present on the tour were not aware that such a survey had existed.
Others didn't understand why the city's definition of a 'destination park' couldn't include a nature or learning center where children could learn about the environment. Giordano told Manley and Perez that he felt that there should be more listening sessions before a plan is finalized and brought before the community boards. "We don't want people to feel that the city is shoving a plan down their throats," he said. Giordano also brought up the possibility of operating concessions at the park. Manley said she was just there to listen and would take what she heard back to the Mayor's Office.
About halfway down the path, the participants stopped at a break in the trees overlooking basin 2. The group observed ducks and other birds that call the spot home at this time of year. Dorosh and Jett pointed out Wood Ducks and a Merlin while Wilkinson identified the sound of a Catbird and spotted a Northern Flicker that had stopped for a drink at a puddle in the middle of the path.
At their final destination, the pump house, the group stood in a circle and offered their opinions on what they had just experienced. Several of them stated that despite having lived in the area for many years, this had been their first trip to the reservoir. Edward Kampermann recalled the years during World War II when his father would take his brother and him on long walks around the reservoir on Sunday mornings and hoped that it could be restored to its former beauty, if not its former use as a working reservoir. The group was unanimous in the sentiment that nature should be preserved at this place.
"There is no other natural place like this in New York City," Dorosh said. "It's unique in its diversity of habitat. It needs to be protected, not destroyed," he said.
"Once it's gone, there's no turning back," Jett said. "The city needs more nature, not more concrete."