Vol. 13, No. 9 May. 18 - 31, 2000


THE STATE OF OUR PARKS -- Fourth in a Series

Residents Want Park Back in Jerome Park Reservoir



When the Jerome Park Reservoir opened in 1906, people could walk freely around a white pebbled path surrounding the water. But for the last half century, an outer fence has made reservoir grounds off-limits to the public. So, community residents have banded together to put the park back into Jerome Park Reservoir.

But efforts to make the 125-acre reservoir area an official park have hit a brick wall at City Hall, since the mayor and the Department of Environmental Preservation (DEP), which manages the reservoir, won't back the concept. Other elected officials and area residents, though, continue to fight for public access, arguing that the reservoir, bordered by Goulden, Sedgwick, and Reservoir avenues, should be an accessible community resource.

Drive for parkland designation
Activists have specific ideas for transforming the Jerome Park Reservoir into an urban park with recreational and educational facilities. Spurred by opposition to a city plan to build a water filtration plant at the site, the Jerome Park Conservancy (JPC), a volunteer advocacy group, commissioned the design of a new park in 1994.

JPC's Jerome Park plan unites the reservoir and Old Fort Four, Fort Independence and Harris parks, located along and directly across from the reservoir, into one unit, creating a large land and water park.

"The community was built around the reservoir," said Anne Marie Garti, president of JPC, who lives across the street from the reservoir. "It's the centerpiece of the community. It's beautiful and people need open space."

The group's proposal includes building formal entrances around the reservoir, removing the outer fence and replacing the inner fence around the water with wrought-iron fencing, and creating grassy areas and paths for walking, running and cycling. The proposal also calls for adding park furnishings like benches, fountains and lights.

Park designs would transform current gatehouses for use as a park information center, a viewing platform, a city water supply museum and an interdisciplinary aquatic science center.

Plans to make the reservoir an official park were approved by the state Assembly last year, but went nowhere in the state Senate. According to Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, "The biggest obstacle is the opposition of the Republicans."

Dinowitz, who introduced the bill in the Assembly, said there just wasn't enough support in the Republican-controlled Senate to get the bill on the floor, largely because Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, also a Republican, opposed it and his administration submitted a memorandum of opposition. The city opposes making the reservoir parkland, park advocates allege, because that designation could block future city plans to alter the property for official use.

Again this year, on May 13, the City Council voted overwhelmingly to support a "home rule message," which is necessary before the legislature can act. But little has changed politically in Albany and the outcome there is expected to be the same.

The DEP has supported one part of the Jerome Park plan, though. Led by the principal of Bronx High School of Science, the JPC education committee secured approval to create an Outdoor Urban Ecology Lab. The lab will be open to over a dozen schools, and will be situated along Goulden Avenue.

In coordination with the Parks Department, the DEP will build the lab on a one-acre site on the east side of the reservoir across from Harris Park, where the DEP used to operate a demonstration water treatment plant. The lab is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2001.

Designation as historic sight sought
In another attempt to achieve its goal of preserving and enhancing the reservoir for community use, the JPC wants it listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Among the reservoir's special features are its stone walls and arched tunnels and windows. Beginning in 1895, Italian stonemasons built it entirely by hand in Roman Revival style, Garti explained.

"It's an honor that increases pride in the community and helps get funding for restoration projects," Garti said of the bid to get the reservoir listed on the registers.

The listings would also "help protect it from development whether it's a filtration plant or some other crazy scheme," Dinowitz said.

But that's why it hasn't happened. The State Historic Preservation Board has postponed its vote on the site several times because of city opposition. City officials said they would not be able to deliver water to the reservoir if it's put on the state and national registers. But according to Garti, "that's an outright lie [because] almost every Croton water supply facility in the city is already landmarked."

The reservoir was, however, deemed eligible for the Register of Historic Places, which, for the time being, protects it from development.

Park effort 'serious mistake'
DEP spokesman Geoffrey Ryan said making the reservoir into a park would be unrealistic. "Absolutely not," he said. "This is a public water supply that supplies anywhere between 10 to 30 percent of the city's water. It would be a very serious mistake because of the danger of contamination ... if you have people and dogs running around the reservoir."

Park advocates argue, though, that the area was open to the public for almost 50 years. But Ryan responded that "the science of water quality protection is at a higher level than in 1905."

For Garti, that doesn't explain why other communities in New York City have access to their reservoirs. JPC holds up the Central Park Reservoir as an example, where the public is able to walk on surrounding paths.

"Central Park survived with people running right next to the water for years and years," said Ed Yaker, a member of JPC and president of the Amalgamated Houses. "I see no reason why people in the Bronx can't do the same."

Complications over the reservoir also stem from conflict between the city and community residents, after the city proposed building a massive chemical filtration plant at the reservoir in 1994. But after strong opposition from the community, the city decided to build the plant elsewhere, selecting the southeast corner of Van Cortlandt Park in Norwood, at Mosholu Golf Course.

Responding to lawsuits seeking to stop the siting of the plant in Van Cortlandt Park, the city threatened to change the location back to the reservoir.

But Dinowitz thinks the threats are a ploy. "I think the only people who claim it's a possibility are the fear-mongers in City Hall that are trying to divide the community," Dinowitz said.

Garti, too, doubts the filtration plant will be an issue any longer for the reservoir. "The filtration plant cannot come back to Jerome Park," she said. "It's done. They're just trying to get this community to pressure the other community to drop their lawsuit."

A recent court ruling makes it even more unlikely that the plant will be sited in Jerome Park Reservoir (see Filter Plant Article in News section). But the filtration flap continues to foil community efforts to get closer to the reservoir.

For instance, JPC submitted a proposal to the DEP to open the grounds twice a week -- four hours on one day for students and four hours on another day for the community. But Garti said the DEP ignored the request.

Garti also said the DEP used to open the grounds to the public several times a year, at the request of the public. But that went from five times a year, to two, to none. "It's all happening because of the filtration plant," she said.

Keeping up the fight
Despite the obstacles, community groups push ahead. JPC, joined by the Friends of Jerome Park Reservoir, the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, the Amalgamated Housing Corporation and other Bronx groups, have held a series of rallies to support making the reservoir parkland and to express opposition to the construction of a filter plant at the reservoir and at Van Cortlandt Park.

Working in coordination with Lehman College and the Parks Department, JPC also sponsors a clean-up initiative to keep the area surrounding the reservoir litter-free.

But to realize their ultimate goal of access, activists still have to get by the DEP, which, according to Garti, "has a whole different view as to what the reservoir is."

Many residents like Garti see the reservoir as it was originally. "When it opened in 1906, there was no separation made between the community and the water," Garti said. "We want to recreate that park.

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