Saturday, November 27, 2010

NYTIMES 11/26 article on Floyd Bennett

November 26, 2010

On an Edge of Brooklyn, New Hopes for a Park in Neglect


The hangar on the edge of Floyd Bennett Field has the familiar, post-apocalyptic look of urban decay, with “Danger Keep Out” spray painted in red across one of the building’s doors.

Many of the door panels have disappeared; so has most of the hangar’s roof. Inside, a forest of weeds has sprouted through the floor. Sections of guardrail lie on the ground beside large drain pipes, rotted pallets and discarded road signs.

This building — just steps from Flatbush Avenue and part of what maps identify as the “Hangar Row Historic District”— is an example of what Theresa Scavo, who grew up in the area and is chairwoman of Brooklyn Community Board 15, often refers to as the “total neglect” of this historic site, home to New York City’s first municipal airport and for almost four decades part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

“It’s always been like this,” Ms. Scavo said. “It’s just, every time you pass, it looks a little worse.”

But if Floyd Bennett’s many users, boosters and officials can agree on a vision of the field’s future, better years may be ahead.

A blue-ribbon panel organized last April by Representative Anthony D. Weiner and Senator Charles E. Schumer has been asked to make recommendations for the park’s future. It will focus on the “overall vision” for the field, along with practical fixes, said Robert Pirani, a senior planner with Regional Plan Association, which is working with the panel.

The recommendations will be just that — ideas that could be incorporated into a larger National Park Service plan with the intention of making Floyd Bennett “worthy of being a national park,” as Mr. Pirani put it. Financing for the proposals is unclear.

The panel, which has two chairwomen, Marian S. Heiskell, a longtime conservationist, and Deborah Shanley, dean of the School of Education at Brooklyn College, is expected to release its report this winter.

Some panel members, park users and advocates have pressed for big and ambitious plans — building a drive-in movie theater or an Olympic-size swimming pool, for instance — while others have argued for more low-key, pragmatic repairs: erecting clearer signs, improving transportation to the field and within its more than 1,000 acres, and fixing a boat launch with potholes so large you can see the rebar below.

The park already has an archery range, a campground, protected grasslands, a private sports complex and a community garden. It is also used by fishermen, cyclists, kayakers, a large model airplane club and a historic aircraft renovation project.

There is “broad unanimity” among panel members that the park can be improved while keeping these multiple uses, Mr. Pirani said. The challenge is making sure that the recommendations can be addressed in a realistic way, he said.

Linda Canzanelli, the acting superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area, said the process of improving Floyd Bennett Field has already begun with the restoration of the Ryan Visitor Center — once the airport’s grand terminal and administration building — which a Park Service spokesman described as “the heart” of the park. Work began this year, and the building is expected to reopen in 2012.

Pointing to the success of Aviator, a private sports and recreation complex that opened in 2006 in several run-down hangars, Ms. Canzanelli said the key to fixing the still-crumbling hangars was in public-private partnerships and leases to schools or nonprofit organizations.

“We inherited a bunch of older military buildings, but we don’t have a Department of Defense budget,” she said. “We need to do a better job of reaching out to the public, because the days of big government coming in and solving all the problems are over.”

At a well-attended public hearing in September, the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, who is also a panel member, suggested bringing major trade shows to Floyd Bennett, starting a high-end antique fair — similar to the Brimfield Antique Show and Flea Market in Massachusetts — and building a drive-in movie theater.

The last idea drew jeers from Jill Weingarten, a longtime member of the Floyd Bennett Gardens Association and the editor of its newsletter.

“Everyone turned to each other,” Ms. Weingarten recalled, “and I went, ‘Boo.’ ”

One afternoon, Ms. Weingarten tended the tomatoes, jalapeƱos and water irises in her garden, which is close to nearly 500 other plots. She has had her garden since 1997, and has transformed it into a kind of sanctuary, with a pond, grapevine, barbecue and sunshade. She hesitated at a suggestion to expand the garden, which has a two-year waiting list, to accommodate more plots and urban gardeners.

“I see people who want this place to remain secret and quiet — and in a way you can’t blame them,” she said. “In another way, why not? Why not make it bigger and give people more opportunity?”

Ms. Weingarten said the association had pushed to make solar energy central to the park’s future.

“A lot of the buildings are closed because they can’t pay electricity,” she said. “Then they get vandalized.”

Ms. Scavo had a more modest request for the panel. “Fix what we have,” she said.

Ms. Scavo is just one interested party among many. There is New York City Audubon, which has run a grassland restoration project at the park since the mid-1980s, and has argued for more protections for sparrows, larks and other ground nesting birds that use the property. There is the Pennsylvania Avenue Radio Control Society, a 200-member model airplane flying club that has requested that development projects be kept modest; it has also asked for electrical hook-ups and wireless Internet.

There is the archery range and the Historic Aircraft Restoration Project. There are visitors like Jimmy Reco, 68, and David Davidson, 75, who have spent many mornings over the last 20 years on the park’s eastern shore, fishing, drinking coffee and reading the paper.

The men said the surrounding beaches are no longer plastered with garbage the way they once were — “It was a like a city dump,” Mr. Reco said — but that afternoon there was still plenty of trash around: beer bottles, wine bottles, soda bottles and, eerily, an empty urn from St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst.

The scene was sufficiently disturbing to Mr. Reco, who had a simple message for the field’s overseers.

“We need help here,” he said. “S.O.S.”