Picturing a Park, on 20th Street
BY MAEVE GATELY | Consult a map of Manhattan and highlight the areas within a half-mile of a park or green space, and you will see that Chelsea ranks last — a glaring insufficiency that is depriving residents of recreation space, and families of much-needed playgrounds.
Such is the argument of Friends of 20th Street Park, a community grassroots organization whose mission is to fight this inadequacy. The Friends’ focus is an empty lot on 20th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), which the group hopes to turn into a quarter-acre “pocket park.” When Friends of 20th Street was founded in 2010 by local resident Matt Weiss, the group aimed to convert the lot — which is owned by the city and once belonged to the Department of Sanitation, into green space. Since then, the organization has gained support from local residents, business owners, architects and politicians. It has an active Steering Committee of 20 members, and has amassed a petition with over 4,000 signatures from residents in the community. On Tuesday, April 30, the group unveiled three potential designs at “Picture Your Park!” — an event that took place at the Lyons Wier Gallery (524 West 24th Street). It was the fifth public event the organization has held, and over a hundred community members were in attendance.
Despite its popular support, Friends of 20th Street faces a major obstacle in the park planning process. The city plans to turn the lot into between 60 and 80 units of middle-income affordable housing (for families who make a combined income of up to $100,000).
According to Robert Benfatto, District Manager of Community Board 4 (CB4), the lot was slated to become affordable housing, when West Chelsea was rezoned and points of agreement between the Community Board and the Mayor were drawn up. The Community Board supports affordable housing at that site,” Benfatto said in a phone call to Chelsea Now, adding that when asked about the “black hole,” (a charged phrase often used by the Friends to describe the green space void) that the same can be said of public housing, which is also desperately needed in the area.
“Picture Your Park!” served the dual function of gathering supporters together for community visibility and displaying three architectural renderings for potential parks, which were done by James Khamsi of FIRM-a.d. In addition to the renderings, which showed naturalistic, athletic and family-centric options, the event featured an interactive display which Khamsi called the “Kid of Parks” — a small square of Astroturf covered with wooden cutouts of trees, benches and various animals that could be re-arranged and moved around. The display was intended to give residents a three-dimensional idea of the possible uses of the space.
Matt Weiss spoke of the gallery event as an “exciting next step in the evolution of the park,” calling it “an open conversation with the people of Chelsea.” The three ideas Khamsi proposed, he emphasized, were merely suggestions to “spike conversation” and encourage members of the community to weigh in on the issue. Other infographics displayed statistics about green space in Manhattan, demonstrating that CB4 ranks last in three crucial areas — percentage of the population living within a quarter mile of a park, acres of open space and open space per 1,000 inhabitants. Another poster listed other “pocket parks” throughout the city. While opponents of the lot claim it is too small to support a viable green space, Friends of 20th Street found over 20 parks in Manhattan that work with a quarter acre or less — including Herald Square and many neighborhood parks throughout the Village. The park on 20th Street, Weiss promised, will “bridge this green gap for thousands of residents,” and provide needed recreation space for families in the area.
Leaders of the Friends group spoke of the park as a way to combat the rapid increase in apartment buildings and new businesses throughout the area. “I am a believer in balanced infrastructure,” said Sally Greenspan, a founding member of the Friends. She described the potential park as “a sponge in the middle of all this cement,” and warned that it is the last open, undeveloped space in the area — the last chance to build a new playground for the first time since 1968. A park is a place for everybody, Greenspan said, and would benefit residents of affordable housing as it becomes “a place where neighbors meet.”
The event drew two candidates for city office, Yetta Kurland and Julie Menin, who are running for City Council and Manhattan Borough President, respectively. The support of these candidates is crucial for Friends of 20th Street, as their votes could overturn the affordable housing decisions made by CB4.
Kurland said she was delighted to be at the event, and in a later email to Chelsea Now, added that, “The Friends of the 20th Street Park are the best kind of community-based planning.” If elected, Kurland said she will “continue to work with community members to design a solution that meets our neighborhood’s needs,” emphasizing that “Chelsea’s shortage of open space couldn’t be clearer. We need space for our children, our pets and our families to breathe.” The need for green space will not come at the expense of housing, Kurland promised, saying she will work with Friends of 20th Street to continue to identify possible locations for affordable housing, as, “We should not as a community be forced to have to choose between having outside space or being able to afford our inside space.”
Weiss opened the official section of the evening by standing in the miniature park display, and thanking the community members who had gathered to show their support. “This event marks a truly momentous step for the park,” he said, arguing that, “What we see on 20th Street is tremendous possibility,” and “a place of respite for young and old.” The architectural renderings serve a crucial role in attaining this potential, as they provide visuals needed to inspire the community and act as a “critical catalyst” for advancement. As his own son tugged at his shirt, and various toddlers weaved around him, Matt joked that the “Kid of Parks” was being “enthusiastically embraced by kids already.” Weiss also spoke of the need to “keep up the pressure” on local officials, promising that Friends of 20th Street will not stop “until one day these gates are gone and the park is open for all.”
Those who stand to benefit most from the park are families with children and seniors, who cannot walk the necessary three avenue blocks to get to Hudson River Park or Madison Square Park. Annie Walsh, a mother living on 20th Street (right near the empty lot), expressed her frustration at the current lack of green space in the area. If she wants to take her children to a park, Walsh explained, “I have to gear up and then I’m out for the rest of the morning.” Even then, her best options, Union Square or Madison Square, are too crowded and lack the safe convenience of a neighborhood park.
“I don’t want to have to sit on a bus to have to sit on a park bench,” said Pamela Wolff. A CB4 member and a lifelong resident of 21st Street, Wolff was careful to articulate her belief in the benefits of affordable housing, saying it is “the most wonderful thing we could possibly do, but we have done it and done it and done it,” and now the area desperately needs green space. “It is unfortunate that this park, which is a good cause, is fighting with another good cause,” she added.
Wolff’s alternative for affordable housing is the same as Weiss’s—a group of four city-owned buildings on Seventh Avenue, at the corner of 22nd Street. The city-owned and abandoned structures are in disrepair, and have over 54 open violations against them. If the buildings were torn down or refurbished, Weiss says, they could potentially yield 40 incremental units. But that is not enough to make up for what the 20th Street lot offers, says Bob Benfatto, and the Seventh Avenue buildings are already part of the city’s affordable housing plan. Friends of 20th Street has pointed out other alternatives, including the Bayview Correctional Facility on the very west end of 20th Street, which is on Governor Cuomo’s list of prisons to close.
While the 20th Street lot is currently slated for affordable housing, no significant steps have been made toward this goal since the Department of Sanitation left three years ago. In order to make steps toward converting it to green space, the lot would have to go through a ULURP (Uniform Land Review Procedure) process — which includes soil testing and environmental evaluations, as well as attain a Request For Proposal (RFP). There is some debate as to whether it would be necessary to go back through CB4, as Weiss believes going directly to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s office would allow council to bypass CB4. Friends of 20th Street had an audience scheduled with Quinn, says Weiss, but the meeting was cancelled at the last minute and without explanation. Friends of 20th Street has occasional communication with CB4, but does not come to meetings to argue its cause, instead focusing on grassroots support.
Despite the apparent lack of legislative progress, the group still believes it possesses strong forward momentum. Weiss described their current state as a “very different place of progress” than three years ago, adding that he does not feel as if he is shouting at the wind, but rather takes strength from every new supporter who joins his cause.
When asked about the timeline for the project, Weiss jokingly replied that he hopes to have a park in the empty lot by the time his four-year-old goes off to college. While even the most optimistic estimates put the park several years away, he aims to build his community following, wait for officials to come into office or change their vote to support his plan. While Friends of 20th Street will continue to run a positive campaign, he promises. “We will keep fighting, as long as it takes.”