So a lot is going on with the Newtown Creek Environmental Benefit Project. Or nothing is going on with it. It really depends on who you ask.
Wednesday night (4/23), a progress meeting on the project was held in Long Island City. Michelle Moore from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) kicked things off, and almost immediately voices were raised questioning funding and lack of progress. Even Joseph Lentol, the New York State Assemblyman that represents Greenpoint, expressed his disappointment at the lack of progress with the project so far.
Stating that the funding awarded should be dealt out to “heal the wounds” of the neighborhood, he accused the DEC of “sitting on money.” A total of $10 million was awarded for the Newtown Creek Environmental Benefit project with $7 million going to the City Parks Foundation and $3 million awarded to the Hudson River Fund. After Lentol left to attend to other matters in Williamsburg, both departments made their cases.
A representative from the Hudson River Foundation addressed the crowd first, explaining the grant cycles and process,“We have to do it right and we only get one chance to do it. We want to get the money out quickly, but we also want it to be right.”
Lisa Garrison, Program Director at the foundation explained that the grant process began in 2011. One of their main goals was to educate the public about the creek and get people involved. They gave a number of small grants to different organizations that got people out on the water in Queens and Brooklyn. Teaming up with the Newtown Creek Alliance, Newtown Creek Armada, GWAPP, and others, they organized water taxi rides, horticultural classes with students at PS 31, the training of 300 “citizen pruners” to maintain new trees, art installations to encourage people to visit the nature walk, and more.
City Parks explained that their responsibility isn’t to select projects, but to implement them after they’ve been selected. Alison Tocci, the president of CPF, updated the crowd on the progress. She explained that 88 percent of the funds awarded are currently unspent. So far, CPF has put money towards the construction of the boathouse, wetland frames, the Dutch Kills park basin, and administrative fees.
That’s when the crowd chimed in. People had a lot of questions on how money is being spent in regards to the boathouse, and why the public wasn’t being updated on the progress. Basically, the original site of the boathouse, the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC) was eventually deemed unsuitable for the project. This was after lots of back and forth about the lease, all of which was done without notifying the public. The NBBC was advised not to tell the public about lease dealings, although the Boat Club’s almost 250 members were occasionally given updates. Since the $3 million was only allotted to the building of the boathouse, none of it has been spent. The new site is actually projected to bring the project under budget, which will allow the CPF to give that money to other projects.
It was decided the GMDC was an unsuitable location for a number of reasons, chief among them that they didn’t want to hold any kind of educational programs there (which was one of the main goals of the boathouse project from the start). Since choosing a location needs to fit the criteria of education, proximity to the creek, and boating programs, the lease fell through. The new location at Broadway Stages fits all the criteria originally outlined in the project scope, but that lease is also not finalized.
Now, should the public have been informed of all this? That remains up for debate and at the end of the meeting, the issue of who would be informing the public of what and when leases would be finalized remained up in the air. The CPF seemed open to the task of sending newsletter updates to people interested in the specific projects, but they remained adamant that keeping the public informed about leasing agreements, or the lack thereof in this case, isn’t the way to do business and frankly, isn’t always interesting.
So while it seems the meeting cleared up a lot of confusion about the dealings of the boathouse, I came away wondering if all the money – the small amount that has actually been allotted, anyway – was really being put to the best use. While all of the staff, volunteers, and members of these organizations are clearly very passionate about the future of Newtown Creek, having multiple small organizations with the similar missions of “promoting access and education to the creek” seems like a redundancy. On the other hand, as one audience member stated in regards to the boathouse, “membership has been growing even through all of these lease failures.” The residents of Queens and Brooklyn are clearly passionate about Newtown Creek and having safe, healthy access to it. Hopefully everyone can agree on the best way to do that soon (and we’ll keep you posted on progress).