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Hopes for a Harlem River Park Tied Up in Red Tape

April 21, 2011

A view of the Harlem River from University Heights. (Adi Talwar)

Regatta Park does not exist. It is an idea. A collective vision to see a public, usable green space on the Harlem River waterfront right here in the northwest Bronx.

Ozzie Brown can see what Regatta Park is now from his Fordham Hill apartment, which looks down at the Harlem River waterfront, just north of the historic University Heights Bridge. “It’s a dump,” he says of the area, which is also known as Fordham Landing.

The creation of Regatta Park is called for in the city government’s recently released comprehensive waterfront plan and is a vital cog in advocates’ dream of creating a continuous greenway that would travel along the Harlem and Hudson rivers from Westchester County to the south Bronx.

But the city money once allocated for Regatta Park has all but evaporated, forcing residents like Brown and other park advocates to keep hope and the vision of waterfront access alive.

Last year, City Councilman Fernando Cabrera gave Community Board 7 and Brown, a board member, $15,000 to work on redeveloping the Harlem River waterfront in his district, which includes Fordham Landing. Previously, the Board had worked with Columbia University to come up with a grand vision for transforming the area into a resource for the community.

The transformation would be built around Regatta Park, which was set to receive a $1.6 million infusion from the Parks Department, thanks to the deal that put the Croton Water Filtration Plant in Van Cortlandt Park. That money would not have covered the construction costs, but it would have been a good start.

But the Parks Department used the majority of that funding — all but $97,000 — to mitigate lead contamination found during the construction of Harris Field in Bedford Park. Now, Brown and the Board want to use its $15,000 to get the Regatta Park ball rolling again, but are not getting any response from the Parks Department.

“There’s been a lot of feet dragging,” said Brown. “I don’t think anyone takes it seriously enough to really give an answer to the community that would indicate their intentions for the future.”

The Board wants to give the Parks Department Cabrera’s money to help kick off a scoping hearing — an open forum that allows the public to have input on the Regatta Park project.

In late March, after press inquiries and four months after Cabrera’s office sent the agency a letter asking for action on Regatta Park, the Parks Department said it would indeed hold a scoping hearing, but there is no time frame to make it happen.

“We are moving forward with scheduling a scoping session for Regatta Park,” said Parks spokesperson Jesslyn Moser, in an e-mail.

Moser said Parks is hoping to recoup the lost Regatta Park funding when the Office of Management and Budget approves the next round of Croton-related funding, but, again, it is unclear if and when that will happen.

The Department of Transportation currently controls the city-owned land designated for the park, but aside from a few stacked guardrails and wood pallets, the lot is empty.

In a meeting last fall, according to Cabrera’s Chief of Staff Greg Faulkner, the DOT’s Bronx commissioner, Constance Moran, told Cabrera’s office and Board representatives the DOT would give up the space if Parks comes up with a plan to redevelop it.

“It’s frustrating,” said Faulkner. “It seems like such a no brainer.”

Brown says it’s frustrating because the river used to be more of a resource for residents. In the mid-19th century, according to Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan, steam boats stopped at Fordham Landing on their way down to Wall Street. Underneath the High Bridge, a major tourist attraction, there was an amusement park.

Today, while the Manhattan side has seen some development, the Bronx side of the river is mostly used for commercial purposes. On the south side of University Heights Bridge, a dairy company stores trucks on a huge lot zoned for residential buildings. North of the bridge and the space sited for Regatta Park, there is a storage facility, a scaffolding company and a cement factory.

Between the storage facility and the city-owned Regatta Park site is a small wooded waterfront patch owned by Con Edison that is literally being used as a dump. In between random piles of hardened concrete, there are beds, clothes, empty detergent bottles, even half of what looks like a jeep. The jagged wood remnants of Fordham Landing pier poke through the water.

Brown wants to start doing beautification projects at the site. “The community is quite interested, but our hands are tied.”

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