The New York State Department of Parks has announced plans to close the East River State Park for the winter months due to additional budget cuts requested by Governor David Paterson.
The State Parks Department, which operates eight parks in New York City, including Williamsburg’s East River State Park (North 8th Street and Kent Avenue) and Empire Fulton Ferry Park in DUMBO, confirmed that it is planning on locking the gate at the Kent Street entrance and removing staff from the site from January through March.
“We’re very unhappy about it,” Parks spokesperson Rachel Gordon said. “We’re in the business of keeping the park open but these are very difficult times and we are required by the governor to cut our budget by 10 percent. We finish 75 percent of our budget by the end of the summer and we only have 25 percent left of budget for the year.”
Local elected officials are unhappy with the move and have vowed to work with the state agency and the governor’s office to keep the park open. Assemblymember Joseph Lentol said he understands that the state is experiencing a harsh budget crisis but believes that does not account for the Parks Department’s decision to close the fledgling space early next year. Lentol will raise the issue during the State Legislature’s Special Session on Nov. 18 and 19, when he will meet with the State Parks Commissioner during a hearing on the state budget.
“This is a new park,” Lentol said. “People are getting used to it. There’s not much open space in this neighborhood. We’re not going to give up without a fight. This park needs to be open during the winter months.”
Gordon thinks the governor and legislature will require state agencies to make even deeper cuts during the Special Session. So far, the State Parks Department has absorbed a 3.5 percent cut in April and a 6.5 percent cut in August. The results have been the reduction of seasonal and permanent staff on site at parks, and the consideration of closure of some sites throughout New York State.
“I don’t think there’s a way to avoid this,” Gordon said. “We have no choice. We’ve tried to put together a plan that would minimize the effect on people who enjoy our parks. The theory was that January, February and March would be the easiest months to not have people come in and that they would be the quietest months anyway.”
Michael Freedman-Schnapp, a staff member of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG), a nonprofit advocacy organization that supports the creation of open space in Brooklyn, was surprised and by the state’s decision. NAG’s board members were among the most active community members in advocating for the park’s creation over the past decade.
“I think it’s extremely unfortunate that state parks is considering closing the park for the winter,” Freedman-Schnapp said. “That park has become an integral part of our community. Closing it for the winter would send the signal that the open space revolution we’ve experienced in North Brooklyn is over.”
Gordon agrees in part, saying that the park is important to the urban environment and “an example of creating open space for a community that desperately needs it.” While continuing to operate parks in the city is important to the state, the budget crisis complicates the state’s plans for providing services to city residents.
“Anytime anybody wants to restore funding is fabulous,” said Gordon. “We want parks to be open and we want people to enjoy them.”