In what could be seen as a referendum on the need for open space in Chelsea, over half of the people who participated this year in Councilmember Corey Johnson’s participatory budgeting program voted to allocate funds for the creation of a small park on W. 20th Street. The proposal was the top vote getter among 17 proposals, with over 1,300 ballots out of 2,328 votes cast to secure $200,000 in funds to make the park a reality.
“In the context of 17 other very worthy community projects, to have the one with such a huge turnout...clearly speaks to a very activated and engaged community around the idea of open green space in the area,” said Matthew Weiss, founder of Friends of 20th Street Park, the driving force behind the initiative.
Johnson said the success of the initiative speaks to the lack of parkland in the neighborhod. “Chelsea is starved of open space, with Community Board 4 ranking dead last out of the 12 Community Boards in Manhattan in terms of open space and parks within a quarter-mile of residents,” he said. “Nearby schools that currently lack outdoor play space will be able to use this park to provide fresh air and exercise for their students, and New Yorkers who live and work in the neighborhood will have a place to have lunch, read a book or simply enjoy the weather.”
The funds will be used for an environmental assessment of the lot – which was owned by the Dept. of Sanitation – and for the demolition of two low-rise administrative buildings.
The funds will be disbursed through Johnson’s office to the various involved city agencies such as the Parks Department and Dept. of Environmental Conservation. The funds will be allocated as part of the FY 2016 budget, which is usually passed at the end of June.
Johnson’s office said in terms of voter turnout, the councilmember was in the top five among 23 city council members who took part in participatory budgeting this year.
Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates, said he’s been involved in the effort to create a park at 136 West 20th Street, between 6th Avenue and 7th Avenue, for at least three years.
“Chelsea, especially that area, is starved of park space and this will be terrific,” said Croft. “The challenge now it to make sure that the funding comes online and the project moves forward in an expedited fashion.”
Weiss previously told The Chelsea News that he got involved in this effort in 2010 after he and his wife had a son and quickly realized there were no parks around where they live. He created a website around the issue and started raising community awareness, including with a petition that now has thousands of signatures in support of the park. Now, five years later, the first tangible fruits of that effort are paying off.
“Winning participatory budgeting feels great, it’s definitely an exciting step forward for the park,” said Weiss. “More than half of the people who voted in participatory budgeting voted for the park, which is just awesome. It’s a huge validation.”
Croft said he doesn’t usually see this amount of organization and dedication around park issues, and that Friends of 20th Street Park and its members are the only reason the initiative wound up on the participatory budgeting ballot and won.
“With the way they’ve been focused and organized around this issue, this is a very unique group,” he said.
Croft said midblock parks, or “pocket parks,” were prevalent in the time of Robert Moses, but much less so nowadays.
“It’s very rare these days to have a midblock park,” said Croft. “The only way this would’ve come about is if you have a very dedicated group, which this is.”
The site was originally eyed by Community Board 4 for the creation of affordable housing, but as momentum gathered to create a park there instead, alternative sites for affordable housing began to emerge, many of which came from Friends of 20th Street Park.
As for the park, soil tests and a site history study have yet to be completed. Weiss said his group is meeting with Johnson’s office in the coming weeks to determine the way forward.
“I think we’ll be sitting down in the coming weeks with [Johnson’s] office and his team, who we have a really good relationship with, and will talk about putting these funds into action,” said Weiss.