A campaign to turn a vacant lot in Chelsea into green space gained traction recently when it was featured on Councilmember Corey Johnson’s participatory budgeting ballot. The proposal would provide $200,000 for the demolition of a Dept. of Sanitation-owned low rise on the lot, at 20th Street between 6th Avenue and 7th Avenue, and environmental cleanup at the site.
The effort to create a park in one of the most open space-starved neighborhoods in Manhattan began some five years ago, when Matt Weiss started a family with his wife and learned there were no parks nearby where his child could play.
“We had a son, and we very quickly realized there were wonderful green spaces for kids all the way east and all the way west, and we quickly learned there was nothing in the center of Chelsea that could accommodate a family like ours,” said Weiss.
In 2010, Weiss started raising awareness about the need for a park in Chelsea. He and other organizers identified a former sanitation department lot on 20th Street that was ideal for the creation of green space. After digging into the history of the site and discussing their idea in the community, the organizers, who coalesced under the name “Friends of 20th Street Park,” found out from Community Board 4 that the space had already been earmarked in 2007 for the possible creation of affordable housing.
Undeterred, the friends group continued to promote the idea and unearthed a CB4 document from years earlier that laid out needs in the district. It turns out, said Weiss, the notion of creating a park at the site on 20th Street predated the idea of using the space for affordable housing.
And though affordable housing is a very worthy cause, said Weiss, there are a greater number of potential sites that can be repurposed to create affordable housing than there are sites that could potentially be converted into a park.
“I think there’s been interest for some time in turning this site into a park,” said Weiss.
The lot is a quarter-acre in size, about 10,000 square feet, he said, and Friends of 20th Park have succeeded in gathering more than 4,000 signatures from residents supportive of the idea. Two years ago, the group held an expo with pro-bono architectural renderings of what the park could look like. “There are lots of players here, lots of schools and PTAs, and the demand that comes with kids and outdoor space,” said Weiss. “I think there’s an opportunity for a small play space, seating for everyone, and trees, at the very least.”
Ultimately, he said, it will be up to the parks department.
Weiss said the (potential) park’s presence on a participatory budgeting ballot made it real for him and for others who have been fighting for years for green space in Chelsea. Weiss said this is the first time people can make a tangible step by voting to create the park, “instead of just attending a rally.”
“We’re very excited, we had a very strong get-out-the-vote campaign,” said Weiss. “Voting just wrapped up yesterday, but we’ve been informed that turnout was off the charts. I’m cautiously optimistic because our cause has been around for five years and has built up a lot of interest and awareness.”
But even if the proposal doesn’t pass, Weiss said the attention it’s getting in the community adds to a critical mass of voices that will be hard to ignore as more momentum is gained.
“Even if we score highly I think it will send a really strong message to our elected officials that there’s real will, and political will, to create a park,” said Weiss.
And that’s not just an abstract idea. Friends of 20th Street Park is in the process of incorporating as a tax exempt non-profit, a move that speaks to their increased potency in Chelsea, said Weiss.
The group works closely with Johnson’s office on the initiative, as well as with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and State Assemblyman Brad Hoylman. And the momentum for a park in Chelsea exists outside of the possibility it will receive funds through participatory budgeting.
Asked to comment on the park’s development, Manhattan Parks Commissioner William Castro said in a statement, “NYC Parks supports this acquisition, and we are beginning the process to identify the amount of funding needed to build a park here.”
According to Matt Green, Johnson’s liaison with CB4, the city’s Office of Environmental Remediation has already embarked on a four-month environmental review of the site. Phase one of OER’s study involves ascertaining the site’s history, while the second phase involves testing the soil for possible contaminants. Taken together, said Green, both phases take about four months.
“Hopefully by July we’ll know more about what the cleanup will entail once we get the results back,” he said.