It won’t be ready for a ribbon cutting for two years, but Jamaica Bay’s newest park is beginning to take shape at the intersection of Beach 88 Street and Beach Channel Drive. You’ve probably seen it – the vacant lot just east of the McDonald’s Restaurant and the row of new multi-family houses.
First, some history. Locals remember that a portion of the land was once a gas station. A few also remember that until 1952, Rockaway’s sewage passed through a pipe flowing out into the bay under Beach 88 Street. Going even further back, in the mid-1850s, docks extended far out into the bay, welcoming huge steamships and their passengers visiting the peninsula for sun and fun.
Fast forward to the early 1990s. Don Riepe of Broad Channel (now Jamaica Bay Guardian) thought the area should be earmarked as a protected natural site. As a result of his interest, the land was placed on a “wish list” in the “Buffer the Bay Revisited” report, published jointly in 1993 by the New York Audubon Society and the Trust for Public Land, a national not-forprofit group that acquires property to donate for public use.
Placing the site on this “wish list” did not stop developers. Condos and a controversial waterfront hotel were proposed in the late 1990s. The hotel and condo proposals were eventually dropped, and the site sat vacant for a long time.
The Trust for Public Land did not give up, even though overheated real estate prices from the late 1990s through 2007 made acquisition of waterfront property costly. The group accelerated its efforts, particularly after the housing bubble burst in 2008, at which time they began discussions with the landowner, who had planned to build 20 single-family homes on the 1.26 acre site. To obtain the funds to purchase the land, the Trust initiated negotiations with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, whose Hudson-Raritan Estuary Resources Program sets aside funds to mitigate the environmental impacts of its facilities in the area, including JFK Airport.
The efforts to acquire the land coincided with the activities of a group of persistent human-powered boating enthusiasts on the peninsula. In 2004, my children and I had joined National Park Ranger John Daskalakis and his crew for a canoe excursion from Gateway Marina to Plumb Beach in Brooklyn. We were so excited about paddling that we joined Sebago Canoe Club and started paddling regularly out of the club’s Canarsie dock.
Early in 2008, Rick Horan, president of the not-for-profit Gateway Bike & Boathouse, was looking at potential sites where local residents could launch rowboats and kayaks on the peninsula. When I learned about Rick’s efforts, I joined him and we began looking at locations for a launch site in summer, 2009. We were both enthusiastic about the potential of the bay front at Beach 88 Street.
Several months later, in the dead of winter, everything came together. The Port Authority agreed to fund the purchase of the land by the Trust for Public Land. The parcel, with 500 feet of Jamaica Bay shoreline, was donated to the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation in January 2010. Within a month of the public announcement, I filed a formal request to place the site on the New York City Water Trail. Gateway Bike & Boathouse agreed to take the lead in promoting water access at the site, so Rick and I filed a grant application with the Partnership for Parks. In June, the Partnership gave us the money to purchase and install a bulletin board at the park.
Now a new chapter begins. Building a great, light-use, natural waterfront space requires a lot of funds and hard work by volunteers. Beyond some celebratory dedication and ground-breaking events that may happen next month, use of the park cannot even begin until after the New York City Department of Environmental Protection completes 24 months of site remediation. But the process of planning the park can now proceed.
A group of volunteers came together on July 18 to get things started with a cleanup, assisted by Parks. The group members, homeowners from Rockaway Beach, Rockaway Park and Broad Channel, are involved in a wide variety of local civic groups. Dolores Orr, president of the Rockaway Beach Civic Association, says her group is “pleased that the lot is going to remain as open space instead of being built up with more houses.” Rick Horan adds that, “Gateway Bike & Boathouse is proud to work with the Parks Department to help make water access a reality in the new park, and to work with other community stakeholders who have an interest in using the park, as well.”
Watch for the bulletin board at the site, coming soon!