Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Critics Blast NYCHA/Mayor Over UES Playground Land Grab

Rendering of proposed plan. The De Blasio Administration is moving a head with its controversial plan to build a 47-story,  350-unit high-rise building on a playground on the NYCHA Holmes Tower site at E. 92nd Street between 1st and York Avenues.  Critics say the deal does little to alleviate NYCHA’s massive $ 17 billion dollar structural deficit including approximately $35 million in capital repairs needed in Holmes Towers alone.  


By Geoffrey Croft

Public housing residents were joined by several elected officials yesterday to protest the De blasio administration’s plan to build a controversial 47-story building on a playground, the city refers to as “underutilized land” on NYCHA’s John Haynes Holmes Towers.   

The 350-unit high-rise would rise on E. 92nd Street between 1st Avenue and York Avenue.  

Tenants at Holmes Towers have expressed outrage over the proposal, which would cost them light, air,  and a 5,100 sq. ft. playground, while providing very little in return they say.

Existing Site. The Holmes Tower building behind numerous trees. (Photos: By Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge.

The De blasio administration has reinvigorated a failed Bloomberg-era plan that aims to sell off bits and pieces of NYCHA properly in desirable locations. Holmes Towers is one of 80 sites across the city identified as a “strong neighborhood” for new mixed-use development. 

Critics point out that the city does not have a viable overall plan to solve NYCHA's massive structural problems. While succeeding in making communities more dense this development deal does little to alleviate the monumental financial deficit NYCHA faces, estimated at $17 billion in capital needs.  

Only half of the $ 25 million in development rights - $12.5 million -  from this sale would go directly to Holmes Towers for repairs, not nearly enough to cover the $35 million NYCHA says it needs.

Fifty-percent of the proceeds would go elsewhere. 

According to the city though, “residents will have a voice in setting the priorities for capital repairs at the buildings participating in the NextGen Neighborhoods program.” 

That voice does not extend however to having a say if the building gets to keep the money needed for those repairs.

The plan would allow for the construction of a 47 story building with 350 apartments, half of which would be designated “affordable,” however the income thresholds for these apartments would be too high for the vast majority of public-housing eligible New Yorkers to afford. 

This new building will have 50 percent affordable and 50 percent market-rate housing. These new affordable homes will be permanently affordable and be available to the City’s low-income residents making up to 60 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) according to the city.

The development will include units affordable to residents earning less than $41,000 for an individual, $52,000 for a family of three, and NYCHA residents will have a preference for 25% percent of the affordable housing units the city says.

Critics have expressed concern that the so-called affordable housing is middle class housing that NYCHA residents cannot afford. They have stressed that while middle class housing is important, there’s an irony in telling NYCHA residents that they have first dibs on housing they earn too little to qualify for.

Residents have also questioned the sense of developing the site without first fixing the existing needed repairs.

NYCHA will retain ownership of the land through a 99 year ground lease in exchange for twenty-five million dollars, a price many think is far below what the site is worth.

“I am deeply disappointed by this development plan, which creates the impression that residents of Holmes are essentially being asked to bear the burden of fixing NYCHA’s financial difficulties because they happen to live in a desirable neighborhood,” said Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan).

“Not only does this deal not help residents of Holmes, it will actually hurt them. In one of the city’s most densely populated areas, open green space is critical. Every inch of New York City is valuable and in theory can be sold for a price. Parks and playground are vital to public health and civil society, and it is short-sighted to lease them to developers for a pittance that doesn’t even come close to addressing the financial hole.”

“Funding for NYCHA repairs should not come on the backs of NYCHA residents, especially children who will be losing their light, air, and playground for little in return,” said Council Member Ben Kallos. 

“His deal does not create enough affordable housing, and the affordable units being built are too expensive for NYCHA residents to move into,” Kallos said.

Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer making a point at yesterday's press conference.  

Critics also complain that NYCHA has been to slow in releasing basic details of the plan,  residents and elected officials feel they have been left in the dark. 

Seven area elected officials fired off a letter to NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye that included thirty-one questions regarding the project.  

The letter expressed “outrage” by residents of  the Holmes Towers questioning how it could justify “losing light, air and their playground and getting very little in return.”

The joint letter was signed by Maloney and City Council member Ben Kallos,  Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Liz Krueger, State Senator Jose Serrano, Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez, and Assemblyman Dan Quart.

The city has boasted of, “unprecedented community engagement”  but many of who have attended meetings say their concerns have been ignored.   They also complain that the project is skirting ULURP.

The administration has made it clear they are moving forward despite community opposition. 

Holmes Towers, named after social justice pioneer John Haynes, is a public housing project for low income residents of the Yorkville section of the Upper East Side.  The two public housing buildings, completed in 1969, are 25 stories tall and contain 537 apartments.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to raise money for cash-strapped NYCHA by building luxury apartments on public land failed, his plan to build on the Holmes Tower site were scuttled due to community opposition.

In May the city announced it had chosen Fetner Properties as the developer. 

If built the proposed mixed-income development will be the first NextGeneration (NextGen) Neighborhoods site, a NYCHA initiative.  

The city also awarded Asphalt Green which also operates on city property,  to run a 18,000-square-foot pay-to-play recreational and community center.  The proposed center will include a new indoor basketball court and a rooftop turf field that can be used for soccer and other activities. 

Memberships at the pricey Upper Eastside company run $254 a month plus one-time $199 initiation fee for two adults and up to two children: $149/month plus one-time $199 initiation fee. Hardly the market for public housing. 

The city has indicated that a percentage of free memberships would be available to Holmes residents but details remain vague.  According to the city’s press release, all “Holmes Towers residents will be able to access free or low-cost programming for youth, adults and seniors.” 

No mention was made however for residents of the adjacent Stanley M Isaacs Houses, the three building NYCHA complex containing 635 apartments. 

 “When we use precious public land – especially NYCHA’s open space – for new development, it’s our moral obligation to make sure we are getting the best value for the community,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. 

“For this kind of project, I think we should be striving for 100 percent long-term affordable housing.”

Residents complain about the lost of air and light in part due to the close proximity - just 60 feet of separation - between the proposed 47-story building and the existing 25-story Holmes Tower building.

“This building is going to be forty-seven stories these (existing NYCHA) buildings are only 25,”  said 40-year-old Holmes Tower resident LaKeesha Taylor, 40, at Tuesday’s press conference.  

“It's a tower, towering over those who do not have. Who’s looking down at us. What are you saying that we don’t matter.  I don’t understand. Please explain,” she said to loud applause. 

Close Quarters. Residents complain about the loss of air and light in part due to the close proximity - just 60 feet of separation - between the existing 25-story Holmes Tower above and the proposed 47-story development. 

Joint letter signed by seven area elected officials to NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye, that included thirty-one questions regarding the project which included thirty-one questions regarding the project.  

The letter expressed outrage by residents of  the Holmes Towers questioning how it could justify losing light, air and their playground and getting very little in return. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Central Park: Brooklyn Man Arrested For Lying About Robbery


By Geoffey Croft

Police arrested a Brooklyn man after he led about being robbed in Central Park early Tuesday morning.

Mohammed Shaukat, 22, of East 10th Street in Brooklyn told police he was robbed at gunpoint by two black men while he walked inside the park at 12:40amHe claimed they took $33,000 in camera equipment from him. 

Police checked video at park exists and found no one fleeing the park with the alleged stolen equipment.

When pressed by investigators, Shaukat caved and admitted he made up the story - there was no robbery.

He was arrested and charged with filling a false police report.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Central Park - Police Nab Thief In Chase After Beats Headphones Robbery


By Geoffrey Croft

Tuesday, May 23, inside Central Park at Victim: Alexander Curtis, 24, (515 West 156th Street,) Manhattan.

A 24-year-old man was robbed by a teen riding a bike in Central Park last night, NYC Park Advocsate has learned.

The victim was walking in the park near 109th Street and West Drive at 6 p.m.  wearing a pair of wireless Beats headphones when a thief on a mountain bike rode past and snatched the headphones off the victim's head and fled.

Plain clothes police patrolling the northern section of the park saw the victim chasing a man on a bike with a pair of blue Beats headphones in his hand when he fled the exit at 7th Avenue and 110th Street.

Cops caught the suspect and recovered the headphones.

The victim ID the assailent.

Chirstian Hernandez, 16 was arrested and charged with grand larceny.

The pricey Beats headphones by Dr. Dre are a popular item for thieves.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Body Found In Alley Pond Park Stabbed 28 Times


By Geoffrey Croft

The badly decomposed body found in Alley Pond Park on Sunday was stabbed 28 times, NYC Park Advocates has learned.

Police identifed the victim, Julio Vasquez, 16,  who lived on 166th Street, Queens as an MS-13 gang member, according to law enforcement sources.

The majority of  his stab wounds were to his back, the wounds also included six to the chest.    

He also survived a previous stabbing according to police sources.  

He has five prior arrests including menacing with a weapon on April 11, 2017 in the 113th Pct. Queens,  car theft, robbery, weapons possession and making graffitti.

Prints came back and police said he was a "self-identified" member of MS-13 according to their records.

The medical examiner estimates he was dead six to seven days before being discovered.

Police said a 911 caller reported a foul odor while walking in the park on Sunday. 

The caller, a bird watcher, found the decomposing body about 100 yards east southeast of Cloverdale Blvd. 76th Ave entrance to the park in a heavily wooded sunken.

The body was found face down, fully clothed, torso and head tissue loss.  Police think the body was dumped in the park.

He was wearing Air Jordan sneakers, Armani blue jeans and a long sleeve hoodie. Blue and white LA Dodgers hat near the scene.

A Tattoo on his chest appears to say "Familia."

The body was found within the confines of the 111th Precinct.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Parks Commish "Spin" Class For Workers After Disastrous Ft.Greene Pk Redesign Community Meeting

"This is clearly Silver. He wants to take one of the oldest parks in the city and remake it, leave his stamp."  - Area Resident

Corner of Myrtle Ave. and St. Edwards Place.  Park Commissioner Mitchell Silver is proposing a dramatic redesign to Fort Greene Park by opening up the entrance into the street in a plaza like setting along the heavily trafficked Myrtle Ave.   (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge

Concept # 1. The plan would remove a rounded stone retaining wall that separates the park from the busy street. Parks Commissioner Silver recently blamed the community’s opposition to his Parks Without Borders Ft. Greene Park Plaza redesign not on the plan itself but instead on how park employees presented it at the meeting he attended on February 16th.   (Click on images to enlarge)

Area residents are instead calling for Parks With Borders to protect the park.  


By Geoffrey Croft

Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver is receiving some major pushback on his proposed redesign of Ft. Greene Park as part of his Parks Without Borders initiative. 

Some residents are upset over the proposal. The plan would eliminate a rounded stone retaining wall and open up the park to the street,  creating a plaza like entrance at the busy corner of  Myrtle Ave. and St. Edwards Place in the northern section of the park.    

The plan would also eliminate many trees, and The Mounds a popular children's feature in the park and pave the way for commercial activities in that area of the park residents fear. 

Critics have called the Parks Department Mayoral funded $7 Million redesign proposal, “engineered gentrification.”     

The city argues that the plan would open up site lines to the park's historic Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument,  provide additional seating,  and open pathways.  

Rebuffed by strong community opposition a month earlier at a Parks' Community Input Meeting,  an "angry" Silver presided over a more than two hour lecture for park employees at the Queens theater on, at least in part, how to "spin" public opposition to unpopular projects.  

During the lecture Silver blamed the community’s poor reaction not on the plan but instead on the park employees who presented it, according to several Parks Department employees who attended.

The Fort Green Park proposal was the only city park project featured in the presentation according to attendees, a copy of which was obtained by NYC Park Advocates. 

The plan would remove the rounded stone retaining wall which was part of 1936 Gilmore Clarke design. The wall separates the park from the busy Myrtle Avenue. Residents are upset over the proposal which would open up the park to the street at the corner of Myrtle Ave. and St. Edwards Place.

Entitled, ’Public Engagement 101: Tips to enhance your public meeting experience’  -  more than two hundred park employees - mostly from the agency's Capital Division sat through the talk on March 22nd at the Queens Theater.  

The move came after a disastrous Ft. Greene Park community meeting on February 16th held to discuss the park’s controversial redesign where the commissioner got an earful.  

 "You have to listen to the people who lives in the area, in the communty," a resident of public housing accross from the park said.  

"You can't just come here and do what you to do here. Let us be the spokesperson for what we want done here.  Money was given to Fort Greene Park. So let the people in this community deside what's best for in the park,"  she said.   

 "We actually had a presentation telling us we needed to learn how to spin things better," said a Capital Division park staffer who attended the class and requested anonymity out of fear of retribution.  

 "He specifically pointed out that the problem was that the designer didn't present it properly, they didn't spin it properly.  That's why there was a problem with the community."  

 The staffer said the training was held to, "teach us how to present because he was so upset over how things went at Fort Greene Park,"   said the employee"   There is a way to approach, (public opposition)."     

 "It was a couple of hours, “ the worker added, “It was a waste of time.  

It was mandatory, we had to go. The entire capital projects division was required to go,”   said the worker who felt pressured into attending.  

Silver's presentation to employees included Fort Greene Park's 1936 Gilmore Clarke Plan which shows the rounded retaining wall. The city now wants to remove the wall to create a plaza,  which would open up the park along the heavy traffic of Myrtle Avenue.  

"Sometimes you have to get past the loud people in the community, try to draw out the silent majority, things like that," another park staffer recalled Silver saying during the talk

"Commissioners can become so singleminded and Silver's single mindedness is in lowering all these damn fences, " said the long time staffer who also requested anonymity.

"And some people don't want to lower their fences.  

"I think on some of the Parks Without Borders I think he may be forcing the issue more than is necessary," the worker continued. 

"I think he's been kind of heavy handed with some of these communities though who didn't want their fences lowered and kind of insists, 'you don't know what you are missing. '" 

"It think it becomes a little bit of a panacea - this is your main vision for parks is to cut these borders down, these fences down."

The email was sent to employees on February 23rdseven days after the contentious Fort Green community meeting. 

“Commissioner Silver will be holding a training next month called ‘Public Engagement 101: Tips to enhance your public meeting experience’  intended to provide guidance for staff who regularly engage with communities and represent NYC Parks at public meetings, hearings, events etc,"  the email stated. 

It was resent on March 23rd as a reminder.

Two training sessions had been held previously at The Arsenal in Manhattan however this one was held in close proximity to the Capital division headquarters in Flushing Meadows - Corona Park.  Capital employees interact with the public in park construction projects.

“Its the only (city) parks project that he mentioned,”  said a long time park designer who attended the talk.  

"The other slides are his work in the city of Raleigh (North Carolina). He sure is attached to his own idea. And this is from 'Mr. Community,'" the employee said.  

"It's becoming streets without borders," the park designer continued.  

"It's nothing about the experience about being within the park. To me if you look at that proposed design it looks like a highway.”

“He has this obsession with making it open to the street," the employee continued. 

"He’s not thinking about the experience from the park. There needs to be a little bit of mystery. The street corner is very busy, its very traffionic or disruptive.  That rounded wall that’s there now and the trees is actually a buffer that I think enhances being in the park experience," the agency designer commented. 

“Its a very 60’s concept, these boring plazas."  

"He’s really interested in having entrances on corners. This is personal. "

Besides opening up the park to a busy street, some residents are also apprehensive about the potential commercial uses of the area which would also eliminate the park's popular mounds.

One slide in the March 22nd presentation shows booths along the proposed newly designed "highway."

“They are really into these booths, these concessions," the park designer continued.

"Even Henry Stern (former Parks Commissioner) wouldn’t allow concessions in parks because it was supposed to be about  the experience of being in the park and nature and to get away from all the commercial activity."

Area residents say they welcome much needed improvements to that area of the park, including infrastructure upgrades, drainage,  paving, and improved lighting but not opening it up to the street.

Critics of the Parks Without Borders plan, as proposed say is not the right fit and accuse Silver of "top down" approach. 

The community meetings were billed as "share your ideas and shape the future design of the northern edge of the park."

Besides the meetings some neighborhood residents say they feel condescended and patronized to.

Residents say they feel further slighted by the spin they have received from the Parks Department in written correspondences.

In response to critical letters the agency has been touting the popularity of the voting to get the funding as acceptance for the plaza redesign, which area residents strongly point out it wasn't.

The voting was heavily promoted by the Fort Greene Park Conservancy,  which many point out is not represented by people of color from nearby public housing who mainly use the park on that side. 

Arborcide.  Another slide shows the Tree Impact Zones.  Numerous trees - including Honey Locusts, Norway Maples, London Planes and Zelkova known a good shade tree - would have to be eliminated according to the proposed plan.

Honey Locusts, Norway Maple, London Planes trees that would be destroyed under the proposal. 

Several critics met with Brooklyn parks commissioner Marty Maher on April 11th after the contentious February meeting where he told the group that they were not architects, they didn’t understand Silver’s vision and that "he’s a great planner,"  according to several people who attended.

“He’s as great as Olmsted & Vaux,”  several residents who attended the park site visit recalled Maher saying.

"It reminds me of in terms of stupid use of money to the whole thing where they moved the fountain in Washington Square Park to be symmetrical with the Arch. Just a ridiculous use of money,"  said Enid Braun, a long time resident of the area. 

"This is clearly Silver.  He wants to take one of the oldest parks in the city and remake it, leave his stamp, "  she said. 

"Will he listen?"

The last question asked at the May 3rd community meeting concerned the elephant in the room - if the community did not want the Parks Without Borders  plan to move the entrance was it going to be forced on them.

Maher side stepped the question.

When pressed later about Commissioner Silver's presentation to park employees Maher acknowledged that Silver thought the park presenters spent too much time discussing,  “the Plaza,” the most controversial aspect of the plan. 

De Blasio promised that land use decisions were going to be made locally which would be a major departure from the previous administration.

The Parks Commissioner has a lot riding on this as the Mayoral funded Parks Without Borders is Silver's initiative and he lives - at least until very recently - four blocks away from Ft. Greene Park on Myrtle Ave in The Avolone high-rise and jogs in the park regularly.

(The owner of AvalonBay is the same developer who is trying use parkland to build  a massive 720 foot tower on 96th Street & 2nd Avenue.)

At the February 16th community presentation Silver stepped in and said he uses the park three times a week. 

On Thursday Commissioner Silver became the subject of a contentious City Council Parks Budget hearing where he was repeatedly questioned about the agency's inability to bring capital projects in on time and on budget.

During the hearing the Commissioner characterized Fort Greene criticism to "new people in the community." 

After the hearing Mr. Silver was asked to address the Ft. Greene concerns specifically if the community would have a choice if they didn't want the Parks Without Borders plan to open up the park to the busy street.

“This was a community nominated park it was from the Parks Without Borders which talks about the edges and entrances," Commissioner Silver said. 

Concept # 2. The plan would remove a rounded stone retaining wall that separates the park from the busy street.

"We are open to hear what the community has to say. They brought the recommendations to us. We’ve had three public meetings and we are willing to listen to what the community has to say. The next step is the community board.

What we are hearing is that some like the changes some don’t like the changes our goal is to work with both to come up with a design that is acceptable.  The next step is the community board but I’m always open to listening to people.  

He was pressed that people didn’t know the specifics of the design when they were voting a more than year ago to have money come to the park.

"I’m always opened to design we have it in all of our parks," Silver said. 

"We’ll just sit down and talk about the changes and make sure that everyone likes the design. We don’t do top down planning, that’s not the history of parks' Community Parks Initiative, the anchor parks, its all collaborative and nothing is going to be different in Fort Green Park. So we’re going to listen," he said.

"Having community meetings is not the same as having support for the plan,"  said Enid Braun, a long time resident of the area.   

"We had no idea this money would have strings attached like that," she said.

"I just think this five million or seven million dollars can be so helpful to change the park for the better," said Ling Hsu, a vocal critic of the plan who has been helpingn to spread the word in public housing accross the street from the park.

"But I don't think that the Parks Without Borders proposal is the answer,"  she said.

"We keep being told this design is for your own good. They have no intention of changing the design."

3-year-old Jay having fun on The Mounds. The Mounds are a popular feature in the park for children and would be removed according to the proposal. The plan calls for what one park employee designer called a "highway" leading up to the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument.     

The Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument has long been a focal point in the park.

(Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge

Read More:

New York Post - May 22, 2017 - By Rich Calder 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Washington Sq. Park Redesign Nemesis Appointed To Head Up Park & Conservancy

George Vellonakis

The new head of Washington Square Park is controversial Parks Department landscape architect George Vellonakis.  He was responsible for the controversial redesign of the park during the Bloomberg administration.   


By Geoffrey Croft

The irony.

George Vellonakis,  the much reviled Parks Department landscape architect behind the much vilified $ 30 million dollar renovation of Washington Square Park has been appointed to head up the historic park. 

He will simultaneously serve as both the park administrator, a city job, as well as the executive director of the private Washington Square Park Conservancy.

Mr. Vellonakis has stepped down as a landscape architect for the Parks Department after  more than 35 years. 

Friday was his last day in the capital division.  He starts Monday in his new positions.

His appointments will certainly ruffle a few feathers.

The then unlicensed landscape architect - but licensed real estate salesperson for Brown Harris Stevens  - was responsible for the controversial redesign of Washington Square Park during the Bloomberg administration.  (He has since gotten his landscape license after his lack of licensure became more wildly known)

The contentious renovation plan drew considerable public opposition.  Controversial elements included moving the fountain to align with the arch, (the fountain had been in the center of the park since 1870) reducing the size of the fountain,  eliminating the park's popular mounds, installing a wrought iron fence in order to close historic park at night, and the destruction of numerous trees.

The city was forced to make several concessions after community backlash. 

Unlicensed landscape architect George Vellonakis, and Manhattan Brough Commissioner Bill Castro holding up a rendering of the proposed fence at a public hearing on the Washington Sq. Park renovation plan.  The fence, which was to be used to close the park at night, was eliminated from the plan after public opposition.  (The Villager file photo)  

The park’s contentious nine year renovation was completed in 2014. 

The salary pays between 85,000 - 95,000 a year according to the Internal Job Vacancy Notice. 

His commute will not be a hardship as he lives four blocks from the park.

Vellonakis replaces Sarah Neilson, former chief of staff for Jonna Carmona-Graf,  Chief of Capital program management. Sarah left in 2016.

“I never lose my temper,” Vellonakis  told the NY Times in 2005.   

For months George was in the park’s maintenance building every Wednesday to discuss the design with the public. It was during this time that he was infamously caught by hidden camera speaking to a critic in rather unfriendly manner. (1:46 in)  

"We will pull our money, there won't be any design," he says in a contemptuous tone.

In 2008 the city was forced to pay $ 1 million dollars to fix a poorly designed sidewalk in City Hall Park after the Parks Department’s unlicensed landscape architect Vellonakis choose to use bluestone.  This despite being told by colleagues not to use that material because the surface was not appropriate - too slippery - and people might get hurt, which they did.

The forming of a conservancy for the park and its influence also raised the ire of the public.

The Parks Department worked behind the scenes to help form the private Washington Square Park Conservancy with the help of actor John Leguizamo’s wife, Justine, and socialite Veronica Bulgari. 

A year before the group publicly announced its formation plans in June 2013 Conservancy founder Elizabeth Ely was on the four person interview committee to decide the new Park Administrator and was instrumental in picking the city employee for the job.

Founding Washington Square Park Conservancy board members (from left) Justine Leguizamo, Gwen Evans, Veronica Bulgari and Elizabeth Ely.  The fledgling group had already succeeded in influencing public park policy even on which city employee to hire as Park Administrator a year before the group even presented themselves to the public for the first time on June 5, 2013.  (Photo: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates.) 

The Executive Director job is subject to the approval of the Parks Commissioner and the Board of the Washington Square Park Conservancy. 

The duel role of city employees simultaneously holding a Park Administrator job while serving as the head of a non-profit affiliated with the same park has repeatedly raised conflict of interest issues.

Washington Square Park in 2013 after the renovation.