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East Harlem playground development plan a troubling sign, advocates say

By September 18, 2018 No Comments

Parks advocates urged the city to treat hundreds of playgrounds as parkland to protect them from development.

by Sarina Triangle 

Protecting hundreds of playgrounds on school grounds will be anything but a walk in the park unless the city rethinks how it classifies them, advocates say.

Parks proponents urged city lawmakers to treat some 265 jointly operated playgrounds (JOPs) as parkland during a Monday hearing on the green spaces, which are part of the city Department of Education’s portfolio, but maintained by municipal park staff and open to the public when class is not in session.

Three organizations — The Municipal Art Society of New York, New Yorkers for Parks and the Trust for Public Land — warned lawmakers that the city’s decision not to treat an East Harlem JOP as traditional parkland could foreshadow how it handles others.

“If JOPs across the City of New York were to have air rights today — if by some wave of the magic wand, they were to have development rights — they would represent somewhere between 20 and 40 million square feet of development rights that aren’t currently on the books, which is 10 Empire State Buildings,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the Municipal Art Society, before noting that the organization only considers 20 such sites to have as much risk of being targeted for redevelopment as the Marx Brothers Playground.

“That assumption of the development rights actually makes them vulnerable to loss as open space for both school children and the local community.”

The city Department of Planning said JOPs have always had development rights.

Matt Drury, the city Parks Department’s director of government relations, said the agency is “comfortable” with the JOP model. And designating the playgrounds as parkland may not make sense because the current arrangement offers the city the flexibility to more easily seize the spaces for unmet educational needs, according to William Estelle, executive director at the city Department of Education’s Division of School Facilities.

“They look at these sites to accommodate the additional seats that are greatly needed in a lot of our areas,” Estelle said.

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