2011-02-18 / Front Page

Gateway Up For Grabs

Community’s Role In Jeopardy
By Howard Schwach


RMAC President Stephen Yaeger works with a member of the Friends of Gateway, a bicycle racer and a facilitator to plan for the park’s future. RMAC President Stephen Yaeger works with a member of the Friends of Gateway, a bicycle racer and a facilitator to plan for the park’s future. Rockaway has already lost the first skirmishes in a battle between local service organizations and the massive National Park Service, a battle that might well drive such organizations as the Rockaway Music and Arts Council, the Rockaway Little League, the Rockaway Theatre Company and the Rockaway Artists Alliance from the venues they now enjoy at Fort Tilden and Riis Park.

First, the RMAC Summer Picnic Concert Series was forced from its longtime perch at Fort Tilden to Riis Park and then priced out of that venue as well.

In addition, the organization’s highly-popular Fall Festival was killed by what the organization says was “excessive costs from Gateway that would have put the organization out of business.”

Then, this year, the Rockaway Little League, which has a number of fields and a clubhouse at Fort Tilden, was told that it would have to pay a per-square foot cost for the fields, as well as the cost of electricity and water.

Those costs are still under negotiation with the National Park Service and Congressman Anthony Weiner has weighed in on the side of the locals. With registration completed, however, should the NPS demand massive payments for the use of the fields, the organization would have to suspend operations and hundreds of local kids would be left with no place to play baseball this spring and summer.

Recently, the Belle Harbor Property Owners Association put out an alert to all of its members and constituents.

“Gateway National Recreation Area (GNRA) is developing a new management plan, which will determine how [the people in Rockaway] can use the park for the next 30 years,” an organization official said. “Environmental advocates from outside the community have made numerous complaints that Fort Tilden has too much local recreational and artistic use. Gateway officials are taking that very seriously. There are plans afoot to make local users of Fort Tilden pay user fees, which will make it so expensive for active organized recreation use that we will not be able to afford to use the park anymore.” Gateway officials told The Wave on Monday that the comment period has been extended “in order to provide maximum participation” to locals.

That comment period ends on March 15 and local organizations are urging residents to go on the park’s website and make their thoughts known.

Raina Williams, the new chief of public affairs for Gateway, said that the process of developing a new General Management Plan (GMP) for the park will take another two years.

When questioned about Rockaway’s fears that the plan would exclude local organizations from the park, she said, “As our new superintendent told Community Board 14, we are governed by laws set up by Congress. Those guidelines call for user fees, and we are doing our best to work with the local organizations to come to some compromise.”

“This issue comes from above us,” she added. “It is unfortunate that this is happening, and we understand the difficulties that it creates, but those rules govern all national parks, and we all have to live with them.”

In October of last year, more than 75 local residents, environmentalists, National Park Service officials and others interested in the future of the park met at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to discuss what the park has become and what it one day could be.

And, it was clear from the beginning that the planning process will become a battle between those who want the park to become an environmental wonderland where kids and adults can learn about ecology and view it close up and those who want to see the park become a recreational wonderland for both those who want to participate in sport and those who simply want to watch.

At the start of the exercise, many of those present stated their interest in keeping the great majority of the park “green,” urging that any commercial development be kept to the area bordering Flatbush Avenue, the present site of the commercial Aviator Sports Complex, which some urged be torn down to make way for a “Greenway bicycle path.”

Others urged that the present home of the NYPD’s Special Operations Division, including its helicopter unit, be moved off the base and sent to Staten Island.

“That is not an appropriate use of national park land,” said one member of the Friends of Gateway, an organization dedicated to assisting the park.

When it was pointed out that those helicopters, so close to both Jamaica Bay and the oceanfront, save numerous lives each week, the man commenting was not convinced, urging that both the SOD base and the Doppler radar system be moved.

“The first thing they should do is bulldoze both Aviator and the police base,” he muttered.

Others, however, said that the Aviator complex is the only recreational space available to Rockaway residents even though it is in Brooklyn, and that they wanted it retained and perhaps, expanded.

‘Floyd Bennett should not be just for the birds,” a local resident quipped.

The same problem appears to attach to Fort Tilden and Riis Park as well.

Park Service officials have said in the past that Fort Tilden should be an “historical venue” and that anything not related to the history of the fort or to the ecology of the neighboring tidal marshes should be removed.

Vince Castellano is a Community Board 14 member and the head of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Public Access at GNRA. “It appears that the primary problem of public access to the park is one of philosophy. The national parks were established in 1916. The National Recreation Areas were established in 1972. The impression then was that national parks and recreation areas had different objectives. If that was true at one time, it is apparently no longer true. We have been told by GNRA General Superintendent Linda Canzanelli that both the parks and the recreation areas are to be operated under the same rules. The park service has put us on notice that active recreation is not an objective.”

When the law enabling the National Recreation Area was passed in 1972, recreation areas, parks, seashores and monuments could be managed differently. In 1978, however, Congress changed the law so that all national park units must be governed the same way and under the same rules as national parks such as Yosemite and Grand Canyon.

Park officials argued, for example, in a recent court case concerning the Golden Gate Bridge National Recreation Area that since off-leash dogs are not allowed at Yosemite, they should not be allowed in recreation areas as well.

The original mission of the National Recreation Areas, before the law was changed, was to “Provide for the maintenance of needed recreational open space.” Over the years, however, in many of the recreation areas, that role changed from recreation-based to restorationbased.

Park officials say that such a move has come to Gateway, and that much of the future focus will be not on recreation such as is provided now by local organizations, but on restoration and ecology.

“You can get recreation by walking through a meadow and looking at the plants and birds,” one Gateway official recently told Community Board 14.

The General Management Plan will reflect that belief, the official said.

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