Saturday, December 29, 2012

Long-Closed Starlight Park To Reopen Soon - Access Still An Issue

David Shuffler, left, and Anthony Thomas have waited decades to see upgrades and better access to Starlight Park in the Bronx.
David Shuffler, left, and Anthony Thomas have waited decades to see upgrades and better access to Starlight Park in the Bronx. (Photo: David Gonzalez/The New York Times) 

As part of the Bronx River Greenway, a proposed bridge over an Amtrak rail line is supposed to carry pedestrians and cyclists between two new waterfront parks and complete the scenic route. But the bridge has yet to be built and is now years behind schedule due to a squabble between Amtrak and the state Department of Transportation that goes back to 2002.  

For more than a decade the community has been denied access to Starlight Park's many ballfields, basketball courts and its waterfront while The Department of Transportation was allowed to use the much used public space as a staging area for construction equipment while repairing the Sheridan Expressway. In 2004, just after beginning the initial excavation, workers discovered remnants of a Con Edison plant which had formerly occupied the site. As expected, high levels of contaminants were found, including benzene and other toxins, which further delayed the project until the site could be cleaned up.


The stalled bridge to be built over the Amtrak rail line at 172nd St. is South/East of the bridge in the illustration above.

All David Shuffler wanted to do when he was 14 years old was play basketball on the street and go to Starlight Park – which despite its name was a dimly lighted, dusty sliver tucked between the Bronx River and the Sheridan Expressway.
A lot has happened since that time. The park, thanks to the work of grass-roots groups and New York City and State agencies, has been remade into a green gem and will soon reopen after more than a decade. It’s part of a trail known as the Bronx River Greenway, which was designed to connect the tip of the South Bronx and the shaded, grassy parks up in Westchester County, with parks, pedestrian bridges and bike paths along the way.
And some things haven’t changed. Mr. Shuffler, 33, still lives in his childhood home. And it’s still a hard trek getting to the park, according to an article in the New York Times. 
A bridge over railroad tracks and the river, which would connect his neighborhood to Starlight Park, and to the rest of the greenway, has yet to be built. The span and the development of 11 more acres of green space fell victim to a 2009 impasse between Amtrak and the New York State Department of Transportation over indemnification issues.
So while Starlight Park will welcome back the public in the spring, the best Mr. Shuffler can do now is catch a glimpse of it through a chain-link fence by a dead-end street jammed with cars being repaired.
“It’s looked like this for my entire life,” said Mr. Shuffler, who is executive director of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a community group long active in environmental issues. “The idea has always been to open this up. On the other side of the Sheridan they’re building new housing. All those things have forced us to look at the neighborhood in a more comprehensive way. But the real problem is the bridge at 172nd Street.”
Talks continue between Amtrak and state officials, nudged by elected officials. Adam Levine, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, said his agency was committed to the next phase of the greenway project.
The river itself had once been notorious for pollution and garbage. So many cars had been dumped there that swimming in it – not walking across it – would have been miraculous. But starting in the 1970s, a coalition of environmental and community groups sought to reclaim their river as well as the land that lined its banks, which was often clogged with industrial uses.
That coalition, which led to the formation of the Bronx River Alliance, has already spurred surprising transformations, like at Starlight Park and, to its south, at Concrete Plant Park, whose very name is a tip of the hat to its former life. But without the bridge, environmental advocates worry that their part of the greenway will be a broken path for some 100,000 residents in nearby neighborhoods.
“It’s an incomplete vision,” said Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, who leads the Bronx River Alliance. “It’s not about making something look cute or nice. We can do that. Our issue is about sustainability. It’s a people issue. That’s the resource that doesn’t run out. We have an obligation to make sure everybody has access.”
Even when Starlight Park reopens after a cleanup and renovation, getting there will be a challenge. The easiest route would be from the north, along the 174th Street Bridge, where a mid-span stairway descends to the park. But farther south, where Mr. Shuffler lives, the only means would be to walk to Westchester Avenue and then along the side of the Sheridan Expressway, past an auto-parts store and a motel. And empty sidewalks.
“At night, you don’t want to be walking down there, even with your crew,” he said. “It’s a pretty bad street.”
The remaining phase of the parks reconstruction would not only cross the river, but also create a verdant path behind the private homes that line Bronx River Avenue. It would form a loop – both literally for runners and walkers, and symbolically for people like Anthony Thomas who have waited decades for the improvements.
Like Mr. Shuffler, Mr. Thomas grew up and still lives in the area. Both of them joined Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice as teenagers and work there as adults. Mr. Thomas remembers as a teenager going up to see the parks in Westchester County.
“They had so much green space along the Bronx River,” he said. “It was an affluent community. We felt this peace up there. Then we came down to our part of the river and saw it lined with factories. And that was only 10 minutes away. It wasn’t long.”

Read More:

New York Times - December 28, 2012 -  By David Gonzalez

Feds Hope to Help Jump Start Long Delayed Bronx River
Greenway/Starlight Park Pedestrian Bridge
A Walk In The Park - October 19, 2012 

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