In Jackson Heights, a NYC neighborhood with one of the highest densities of children per acre of green space in the city, the local community has come together to fight for a new park. To overcome well-intentioned, but lengthy, review processes that stand in the way of city-supported plans for a new park, the local community decided to embrace unlikely partners and explore a different funding model to create a new public park that benefits everyone.

Kids paint on 78th Street in Jackson Heights as part of Playstreet, Summer 2009

As part of the campaign to increase public park space in the neighborhood, the Jackson Heights Green Alliance petitioned the city to close off the street adjacent to Travers Park to create a summer Playstreet. Running for the last three summers, the Playstreet has become a common ground where children and adults from the neighborhood’s diverse community gather to play, socialize, and relax.

The Playstreet has grown into a true town square and a neighborhood institution where the diverse members of the the community can come together in a welcoming environment. PPS’ Elena Madison lives in Jackson Heights and along with fellow members of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance has been active in every stage of the Playstreet’s creation and implementation.

The community recently got word that the Garden School, a private school located immediately adjacent to the Playstreet and opposite Travers Park, was looking to sell its school yard. The school board approached local City Council member Daniel Dromm with a proposal for the city to acquire the lot and create a public park, an extension of overcrowded Travers Park and the Playstreet.

However, NYC’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) requirements make it difficult for the city to offer funds to the school quickly, because of the 6-18 month review period. The school, in need of funding, has decided to entertain an offer from a private developer.

The Community is the Expert

Fearful of losing precious green space to development pressures, community members have come together and organized a fund to support the school’s interim operations through individual loans. Although the idea of supporting a private school does not sit well with everyone, community members see this as the only strategy to get the park space the neighborhood needs.

As part of the Playstreet, people took the place of cars during this summertime concert in Jackson Heights

Two weeks after starting the campaign, 226 people have pledged $257,482 to ensure the park’s creation. The loans will be repaid once the deal between the school and the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation is complete. Even in an uncertain economic climate, the city recognizes the importance of adding park space to the neighborhood and has recently made a $7M offer for the 29,000 sq feet school field.

Ironically enough, the ULURP review process was designed to prevent undesirable development in neighborhoods. In this situation, the outcome is quite the opposite. The process is actually threatening to undermine the deal between the school and the city, missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the quality of life and physical health of the community. In a neighborhood where green space is scarce, this park also presents an opportunity to bring together people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to gather.

Why support the park?

Creating a park next to the school would benefit the students since they could use the park during school hours. But, if the deal with the private developer goes through, the space will be converted into a 4-6 story residential building, increasing density and removing the neighborhood’s hope of expanding open space. This would help the school get through its current hardship but threatens to cost the community dearly in the long run.

As the community’s fund-raising campaign continues and the city reaffirms its dedication to purchase the field for park land, the school maintains its wariness of the offer. We’re hopeful that the efforts of the Jackson Heights community won’t be in vain and the school will work alongside its neighbors and consider its role in shaping the community’s future.

This campaign in Jackson Heights exemplifies what citizens can do to take action toward creating the communities they want, in spite of overwhelming obstacles.

Does this sound like a challenge your community has faced? We want to hear from you!

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