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City mulls opening off-limits sites like Washington Square Park arch to NYers

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The City Council wants to make several historic sites more publicly accessible

By Matt Joseph/Wikipedia

The city’s Parks Department manages about 29,000 acres of parkland that’s comprised of all sorts of facilities including your more traditional playgrounds, beaches, and sports facilities, but it is also the steward of many monuments, historic structures, and uninhabited islands throughout the city. While a vast amount of this land is publicly accessible, there are several notable exceptions, and on Thursday, the City Council’s Committee on Parks and Recreation debated this very issue—land owned by the Parks Department that is currently off-limits to the public.

For this wide-ranging discussion, the City Council had highlighted ten notable areas throughout the city that were either completely inaccessible to the public or only had limited or supervised access.

Those ten are as follows: the potter’s field, Hart Island in the Long Island Sound, North Brother Island in the East River, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch at Grand Army Plaza, the Croton Aqueduct which stretches from Westchester Country through the Bronx to Manhattan, the New York State Pavilion in Queens, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park, the Washington Square Arch, the High Bridge Water Tower, and the 119th Street Gatehouse.

“To allow New Yorkers a chance to see and touch these marvelous sites up close is in many cases complicated and in every case will require significant resources,” City Councilman Mark Levine, the chair of the parks committee, said in his opening remarks. “But investing in expanding access would yield incredible benefits to New Yorkers and visitors alike, offering countless opportunities for education and inspiration, and even providing a potential economic boom from tourism.”

The Council’s presentation was followed by Parks Department one where representatives pointed to recently completed projects that had been made accessible to the public, such as the High Bridge which connects northern Manhattan to the Bronx or other attractions that have limited access like the Little Red Lighthouse in Washington Heights. Representatives for the department stressed time and again that while they would be willing to open a significant number of inaccessible areas, they just didn’t have the resources to make it happen.

Levine questioned if the sites chosen for limited access had been arbitrarily selected, but the representative from the Parks Department countered by saying that each site was studied for its specific conditions and only opened if all the factors added up, particularly the safety of the visitors.

Some, the same representative said, were deemed entirely inaccessible after studies were conducted such as the Washington Square Arch. The interior and the roof there were once accessible to the public but have been closed off for quite some time now due to structural issues. That property would essentially require an inordinate commitment of resources to make it accessible to the public.

The Parks Department stressed that it had to weigh the importance of making parkland accessible to the vast majority instead of focusing one or the other smaller property. What they seemed to suggest was that even if a place like Washington Square Arch were opened, it would only accommodate small groups of people at a time, and hence might not make it the best use of the Parks Department’s resources (which account for a minuscule 0.6 percent of the citywide budget).

Council member Elizabeth Crowley questioned why Hart Island, 101 acres of which is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world, was still under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections. Crowley insisted that the Parks Department take up the issue with the mayor’s office to transfer control to Parks and make it more easily accessible to the public. Parks representatives agreed to take up the matter, but expressed hesitation about managing an island where such a significant portion was a cemetery.

Several groups spoke in support of opening up more Parks-owned land including the Regional Plan Association and Open House New York, the latter of which offers tours to usually off-limits spaces once a year at least. Moses Gates, the director of Community Planning and Design at the RPA raised the important point that in New York he found that such projects were usually all or nothing. He advised instead that not all sites had to go undergo multimillion dollar renovations but could just be opened with the requisite safety and maintenance work such as the Promenade Plantée in Paris, which is a High Line-style park that isn’t quite as dazzling as the latter, but still provides a vital public resource.

The meeting on Thursday acted more as an oversight hearing to get the ball rolling with the Parks Department. Based on all the testimony collected at the hearing, the Council will now debate whether they want the Parks Department to formally explore this avenue through pilot programs or cost estimates.