For New Yorkers who have come to enjoy their open, green spaces, public fields and gardens, the meaning of the word “park” has come under increasing challenge. From the proposed new Yankee Stadium to the water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park, officials are targeting parks for corporate projects and infrastructure needs. On March 7, a public hearing could determine the fate of a proposed theme park that would occupy 26 acres of Randall’s Island.

Originally proposed in 1999 as a 12-acre initiative at less than one third the current projected cost, this theme park project has metastasized into a $168 million, 26-acre enterprise with a 35-year lease, requiring ten of the island’s already overcrowded baseball and soccer fields to be bulldozed. A review of the Draft Agreement between the developer, Aquatic Development Group, and the NYC Parks Department is troubling: The most important pages – those outlining the size, scope, site and details of the proposed multi-story structures, totaling more than 133,000 square feet – are blank. What the agreement does indicate is that the price of admission to this private enterprise will be more than $60.

The courts have repeatedly ruled that if land has been dedicated as a park it cannot be “alienated,” or taken for a non-park use, without legislation from the NYC City Council and then authorization from the state legislature. This scheme to alienate public park land without due process has been criticized and is being contested by local and citwide advocates like New Yorkers for Parks and Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, as well as elected officials like Council Member Melissa Mark Viverito.

Nevertheless, the city is pressing on with its hasty schedule. “Ideally, we’d like a groundbreaking before the summer of 2006,” said Parks Department’s spokeswoman Dana Rubenstein. But closer scrutiny might scuttle the deal altogether.

Surprisingly, there has never been a Request for Proposals or a clear and transparent solicitation process for this Giuilani-era pitch. Comptroller William Thompson’s office stated that the city’s process is “flawed and inconsistent with well-established principles of public bidding” and asked how the project was allowed to swell from a 12-acre, $45 million water park in 1999 to a 26-acre, $168 million venture today without being put up for rebidding.

It may be that the financial ups and downs, previous bankruptcy, conflicts of interest and other issues will throw up insurmountable road blocks. The financial backer who has bailed out the main players at Aquatic Development Group (ADG) in the past is Jared Abbruzzese. Since 2000, Abbruzzese and numerous family members and ADG President Herb Ellis have contributed more than $100,000 to various Republican committees, in addition to entities controlled by former Mayor Giuliani, including Friends of Giuliani and Solutions America. As part of the review Process now under way, “If the Comptroller raises certain objections such as irregularities within the agreement or concerns of corruption, the implementation deadline is void.”

For now, the March 7 hearing is still set, and the project must win five votes from the city’s Franchise and Concessions Review Committee (FCRC), which consists of mayoral appointees, the Comptroller’s office and the affected borough president, in this case Manhattan’s Scott Stringer, whose opposition to the plan is on record.

The project would be inaccessible to residents of nearby neighborhoods that are underserved by city parks, such as East Harlem and the South Bronx, which has no official waterfront or shore access. Most absurd is the proposal for an indoor “river,” on a site adjacent to a real river.

Indicative of the politics attached to this project, in 2001 then-Parks Commissioner Henry Stern was compelled to say that “the great recreational potential of Randall’s and Ward’s Island Park will now be fulfilled with the amphitheater, track and field center, and water park. We are pleased to see these projects
get under way.”

Today, free of such constraints, he offers this noncommital yet distinctly different position: “I think it would be no problem if it was left alone,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a happening. It’s an open space, an island in the heart of the city.”

Harry J. Bubbins is a South Bronx environmentalist. For more, see friendsofbrookpark.org