April 5 -
Reservoir as Flashpoint
When community activists successfully defeated the city’s
plan to build the filtration plant in the Jerome Park Reservoir in the
mid-1990s, some also took the time to imagine how the reservoir could be
reintegrated with the community.
The streetscape surrounding the reservoir, particularly in Van Cortlandt
Village, was designed by Frederic Law Olmstead, the famous landscape
architect who designed Central Park.
The reservoir itself is now sequestered from the public by two fences.
But Olmstead intended for the area’s winding streets to complement the
bends of the reservoir, according to historian Robert Kornfeld, who
issued a study of Olmstead’s influence on the area in 1998. Olmstead saw
them as a unit, not for one to be barricaded from the other.
With this information informing their work, the Jerome Park Conservancy
drafted a plan to establish a park surrounding the reservoir.
Now that the reservoir is safe from construction, and the city has $5
million from the filtration plant agreement to spend on creating a path
around it, plans for improving the area around the reservoir have
The main feature of the Conservancy Plan, a pathway inside the reservoir
fence next to the water, appears to raise the city’s blood pressure to
unsafe levels. “If you’re only at this scoping meeting to say you want
the track inside the fence then we can end this right now,” said
Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) legal counsel Richard
Friedman. Some community activists distinctly remember former DEP chief
Chris Ward promising the community a path, but the DEP denies that.
Regardless of who said what when about the path, this disagreement
points to residents’ profound distrust of the DEP, which has misled the
community on more than one occasion.
They promised that many Bronx residents would be employed at the Van
Cortlandt Park site, where the plant is under construction. They now
concede they are having difficulty hiring Bronxites for skilled jobs at
The city vowed on more than one occasion to build an Urban Ecology Lab
at the reservoir, promises that were documented in this newspaper, The
Riverdale Press, and The New York Times. The city hasn’t even demolished
the demonstration filtration plant to make way for the lab, even though
it said many times over the last several years that it would.
So, it was no wonder that advocates who met with the DEP and the Parks
Department recently to discuss proposals for improving reservoir
landscapes and pathways were exasperated. Not only were they rebuffed on
the Ecology Lab and silenced on the inside-the-fence proposal, but the
agencies didn’t seem to take the previous proposals of the Conservancy
and others seriously. “Send it to us again,” they essentially said.
Residents at the meeting suggested that the land around the reservoir be
ceded to the Parks Department, since that agency is more suited to
cleaning and maintaining recreational space.
A Parks Department representative responded that it didn’t matter which
agency owned the land because they were both city agencies. Every
resident in the room who just last month trudged through unplowed snow
on the sidewalks along the reservoir knew that wasn’t true.
Leaders in the battle over the reservoir dedicated years of their lives
to saving their neighborhood. They’ve accumulated a great deal of
knowledge in the process, including lessons these agencies can learn
from. The community deserves respect, attention, hard work and just
plain honesty from their city government in return.
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