Vol. 20,  No. 7 April 5 - 18, 2007



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 resurfaced.

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 site.

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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