The golden age of parks philanthropy, along with its controversies, continues.
A set of New York funders has banded together to support yet another ambitious public parks project in the city. The Tiger Baron Foundation, the Scherman Foundation, the New York Community Trust (NYCT), Altman Foundation, and Lily Auchincloss Foundation, have all put significant amounts of money towards a park and trail system in Queens known as QueensWay.
NYCT is a ubiquitous funder in the city, and Altman has been making news with its housing and workforce development support lately. Meanwhile, both Scherman and Auchincloss have been giving to preservation and the environment, and lots of other local causes too. Not a whole lot is known about Tiger Baron Foundation grantmaking, so it’s interesting to see this low-profile funder get in on the action with these other local heavy hitters.
Although all these funders are very different, they have one thing in common, which is a commitment to quality-of-life improvements in the five boroughs.
Big gifts for public parks in New York City have been on the controversial side lately, including Barry Diller’s plan for island park and entertainment venue on the Hudson River. Questions of how much big name funders are driving park development and how much the parks will actually serve the public have come into question, along with the extent which some large donations may benefit donors who own and develop real estate nearby.
But this public park effort seems a bit different. First of all, it’s purpose is to benefit the quality of life for residents of Central and Southern Queens, an area that doesn't tend to attract much—if any—attention from wealthy philanthropists. At a cost of $120 million, the QueensWay project will convert the abandoned Rockaway Beach Rail Line, which spans 3.5 miles and 47 acres from Rego Park to Ozone Park, into a public park. It’s looking to Chelsea’s Highline for inspiration to build out a bike/jogging/walking path and upgrade Little League facilities.
And the design phase of the first half-mile of the park will kick off this summer. Phase 1 involves the section between Metropolitan Avenue to Union Turnpike, and it also includes the outdoor classrooms for over 2,000 students in the Metropolitan Educational Campus next door.
Like most urban park projects these days, this is a public and private affair. In addition to the funders listed above, $444,000 came from the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and Governor Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council, $250,000 from Hevesi, and $250,000 from City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz. The foundations’ contributions have come more recently as the project gained steam. What we haven't seen yet are deep-pocketed individual donors get behind this in a big way, which was the key to the Highline's success.
Still, not even this park project can escape the controversy that seems to go hand-in-hand with these efforts in New York City. Elected officials like Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder and Representative Greg Meeks have opposed the plan, as well as the Rockaway Transit Coalition, which wants to bring train service back here. The argument is that restoring the line would revitalize local economy and reduce commute times to people who live in the areas destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
But the project is moving forward anyway, and according to Marc Matsil, the New York director of The Trust for Public Land, “Almost 100,000 people live within a 10-minute walk of the QueensWay and every one of them will benefit when it is built.”
Matsil should have said "if" it is built, since a lot of money is still needed to finish this thing. We'll see who else steps forward.