Aquatic Development Group water park advertisement. The proposed water park and private beach club on Randall's Island would have taken away 12 ballfields and 26 acres of public parkland.
By Jennifer Rivera
The conviction of former NY State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno of two felony-fraud charges, has thrown, for now, a much-needed spotlight on the price of doing business in New York State. This criminal culture — with its lack of accountability and transparency — has resulted in the misuse of our public parkland for commercial and political gain.
For 14 years, Mr. Bruno was one of Albany's "three men in-a-room," presiding over a government routinely described as the most dysfunctional in the country. His conviction resulted from consulting deals with former associate Jared Abbruzzese, who testified under immunity.
According to the New York Times, the jury was "troubled by evidence concerning Mr. Bruno’s relationship with Jared E. Abbruzzese, an Albany-area entrepreneur who sought the Senate leader’s help for an array of ventures, from a nanotechnology company seeking state money to telecommunications firms seeking investment capital."
Mr. Abbruzzese became an investor in Aquatic Development Group (ADG) after rescuing it from bankruptcy in the mid-1990s. Soon afterward ADG was awarded the biggest job in its history, a sole-source, no-bid contract from the administration of New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani to develop a private beach club and water-park on Randall's Island.
The water park proposal was widely criticized for taking 26 acres of public parkland from two of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the country, the South Bronx and East Harlem. A water park plan was hatched by the Randall's Island Sports Foundation (RISF), which in 2001 signed a funding scheme agreement with the city that enabled the public/private partnership to divert concession funds generated on the island to itself, funds that would normally go into the city's general fund.
The agreement between the city and ADG provided the company with a 35-year lease on the park property, according to the New York Times. Aquatic Development guaranteed the city a base payment of $1 million annually, and that payment could climb as high as $3 million or $4 million a year, depending on attendance figures. The money would supposedly be used to improve other parkland on Randall's Island.
The city had originally sought bids in 1999 for a relatively small 12-acre, $40 million water park that would operate during summer only — less than half the size and one-quarter the cost of the current plan. Under the Bloomberg administration the plan ballooned to $215 million and would have swallowed up 26 acres of public parkland. (Until his mayoral run, Bloomberg was a RISF board member. He is also a long-time contributor.)
Park advocates were concerned about the city's leasing of public land to a private company to subsidize the rest of the island's parkland, which they said had been inadequately cared for by the city. They were also critical that the city could allow this private, commercial attraction to go forward without the state alienating the parkland first. But the city's Parks Department claimed the plan served a “park use” and “no alienation is required,” spokesman Warner Johnston told Metro New York. “This contract is terminable at will by us.” (A lawsuit was being prepared to challenge it.)
The ability to revoke this park concession "at will" had been OK'd by state courts as a way to avoid alienating parkland. But Geoffrey Croft, president of the non-profit NYC Park Advocates, saw a terrible precedent in the offing. "This deal is based solely on the city refusing to allocate proper resources to maintain the park," Croft told the New York Times. "Selling off public parkland to make up for these appalling shortfalls is certainly not the answer."
In 1999 and 2000 — around the time ADC was being chosen for the water park — Abbruzzese and members of his family contributed $6,000 to Giuliani's aborted U.S. Senate campaign and $30,000 to the state Republican Party. Since 2000, Abbruzzese, his family and ADG President Herb Ellis have reportedly contributed more than $100,000 to various campaign committees, including Friends of Giuliani and Solutions America, entities controlled by the former Mayor.
Abbruzzese, already a major contributor to state and national Republican leaders, lobbied the Giuliani administration to choose ADG, the parent group of Aquatic Leisure LLC, for the aquatic park back in 1999, former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern said, according to the Daily News.
In 1999 Henry Stern was head of the Parks Department when the controversial proposal for Randall's Island was first floated. Two years later, ADG was chosen without going through a formal bid process, land-use reviews or state alienation approval. Stern recently said he had doubts that such a facility could succeed financially. "But Jerry Abbruzzese and his friends in Albany had a plan and it sounded good," Stern recalled.
Community groups repeatedly called on elected officials as well as Stern and his successor, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, to terminate the land grab and no-bid contract. Harry Bubbins, who opposed the city’s plan to turn parkland over to developers, has led bike tours, nature walks and canoe trips to Randall's Island for more than 10 years. He started a letter-writing campaign to public officials.
"How much more damaging information do we have to piece together before they sink this no bid deal that would take away 26 acres of park land for the public?" Harry Bubbins, a local resident and passionate protector of parks and the environment, told Metro in 2006.
The proposed plan would have destroyed heavily used ballfields and picnic areas that are major destinations for people who live in the surrounding communities, especially on the weekends. Admission to the water park would have cost $37 for adults and $30 for children.
"They say they're helping us by putting it here, but they're really hurting us," East Harlem resident Ruisdael Cintron, 21, told the NY Times. "How many people in this neighborhood can go and say, 'I need to cool off,' and pay $30, $35? It's not going to happen."
East Harlem resident Marina Ortiz wrote in the NY Latino Journal, “Clearly, we cannot support a Water Park on Randall’s Island. We should oppose what Comptroller Thompson called 'a process that is flawed and inconsistent with well-established principles of public bidding.' This plan defies sound environmental and fiscal logic. While it may generate millions of dollars each year for its developers and investors, it will have little benefit to the East Harlem community. Most importantly, we should not bargain with the little public parkland we have left without due process.”
"They’re taking public parkland away from two of the poorest communities in New York City and replacing it with a commercial venture that the vast majority of residents won’t be able to use,” Geoffrey Croft, president of the nonprofit NYC Park Advocates told Metro in 2006. “It’s terrible public policy to deny access to public space to make something exclusive for rich, white people.”
Despite vehement community opposition, the RISF and the Bloomberg Administration continued to push the inappropriate plan.
“Ideally, we’d like a groundbreaking before the summer of 2006,” said parks department spokeswoman Dana Rubenstein. "The city hopes to open the park by Memorial Day 2007.”
That never happened.
In October 2006, just weeks before the city’s Industrial Development Agency was set to issue $215 million in bonds for the project, the water park hit a snag. According to a Metro story, ADG President Herb Ellis was also a partner in another business venture that couldn’t repay a loan to the Albany Industrial Development Agency, which had borrowed the money from the federal government.
Instead of securing funds through the New York City Industrial Development Agency, ADG suddenly had to scramble to find investors. With ADG unable to secure the financing, the Parks Department quietly extended the financing deadline for Mr. Abbruzzese's group on January 4, 2007. By September the group had missed its deadline twice and was asking for yet another extension. On September 21, the city finally terminated the contract.
"I would like to thank Mayor Bloomberg for terminating this contract and initiating a new process to best meet the needs of the community," City Comptroller William Thompson said. "Any development of Randall's Island should be through a transparent process and involve all stakeholders."
Mr. Thompson had maintained that the development deal with Aquatic Development Group was illegal because it had not been subject to competitive bids once the plan grew from a 12-acre, summer-only park in 1999 to a 26-acre, year-round park.
Community and open space advocates had spent hundreds of hours of time and effort — and thousands of dollars — but they had helped to stop this debacle; 26 acres of public parkland was prevented from being grabbed for a commercial purpose. Their remaining questions are plentiful, however: Why why did it take so long? Why were those involved allowed continue to push this destructive project? Why was the community allowed to be left out of the planning and consultation? Where were our elected officials?
Senator Bruno and Jared Abbruzzesse are just a small part of a culture of corruption that needs to be rooted out at every level of our government, especially in the private/public "partnerships" whose dealings have largely escaped transparency and accountability. While being allowed to have control over more and more of our public spaces, these groups are collecting millions of dollars in taxpayer funds. This system rewards the cronies of elected officials who are unwilling to protect our parks.
The city, state and federal government have contributed literally hundreds of millions of dollars over the last few years to projects on Randall's Island, including the largest park reconstruction job in the city's recent history. The RISF also entered into a deal which would allow 20 of Manhattan's wealthiest schools exclusive afternoon access to fields on the Island in exchange for a fee. (This agreement is currently the subject of litigation) The vast majority of these expenditures and plans have escaped public scrutiny.
This is a cautionary tale. The abuse of public lands will continue until our public officials begin to protect our public parkland.
New York Times - December 7, 2009 - By Nicholos Confessore & Danny Hakim
New York Post - December 8, 2009 - By Brendan Scott
Randall's Island Water Park - Background:
New York Times - September 22, 2007 - By Timothy Williams
New York Daily News - September 21, 2007 - By Juan Gonzalez
New York Daily News September 18, 2007 - By Kirsten Danis
Comptroller wants to sink water park
Metro NY - September 18, 2007 - By Patrick Arden
City bonds won’t be used to fund project; developer has no other cash on tap
Metro New York - October 20, 2006 - by Patrick Arden
New York Times - April 10, 2006
gothamist - September 21, 2007
Metro New York- March 1, 2006 - By Amy Zimmer
A strikingly inappropriate 26 acre development is being pushed to alienate public park land...
IndyMedia .org - February 24, 2006