2011-03-11 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

A War Rockaway Probably Cannot Win (Part I)
Commentary By Howard Schwach

The old saying that you can’t fight City Hall is probably truer today under Mayor Michael Bloomberg than it has been anytime in the past few decades.

Bloomberg and his commissioners do not listen to community concerns unless there is some political advantage for the mayor in doing so.

Put in bike lanes where nobody wants them? Sure, no problem. Close schools that locals want to keep open? What do they know?

If you think it’s tough fighting the city, however, get ready for a titanic battle with the federal government, a battle in which even our local representatives find themselves frustrated and defeated.

How about the little league ball fields at Fort Tilden plowed under for hiking trails, or historical scenes of the Nike sites that once guarded the fort?

How about the vital Rockaway Theatre Company put out of business so that the area can be turned over to conservators?

How about the soccer fields and cricket pitches now used by thousands of people over a summer turned to wildflower walking trails instead?

Doesn’t sound like that is what Rockaway wants, but it is what a great majority of the environmentalists who run the park and its associated organizations want.

That battle is over the Rockaway community’s access to Gateway National Recreation Area, what we know as the local units of Gateway National Park – Riis Park, Fort Tilden, the Broad Channel

Wildlife Sanctuary and Floyd Bennett Field, right over the bridge in Brooklyn.

Rockaway has already lost the first skirmish in that 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 by high fees and unrealistic requirements.

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

Then, this year, just before the first pitch of spring, 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 the massive payments for electric, water and a per square-foot charge they are demanding 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 recreations 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 expanded “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 had 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 art, theater, sports and those who simply want to watch those kinds of activities.

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.

More on this in next week’s issue.

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