Gateway National Recreation Area: A New Beginning

As I was walking around South Street Seaport at sunset one weekend recently, enjoying the sights of the Brooklyn waterfront, a thought crossed my mind: one of the country's greatest urban national parks is only about thirty minutes away. Thanks to Senator Charles Schumer (D - NY) and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D - Brooklyn and Queens), Gateway National Recreation Area may be seeing many more visitors in the near future.

In recognition of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day last week and the increasing demand for quality park lands in New York City, Senator Schumer and Rep. Weiner announced the formation of the Floyd Bennett Field Blue Ribbon Panel, a task force that will establish a shared vision for the future of the park and make recommendations about how to improve the country's third most-visited national recreation area.

Created by Congress in 1972 to preserve and protect scarce, unique natural resources, Gateway National Recreation Area (GNRA) makes up over 26,000 acres along the coast of the outer New York-New Jersey Harbor. One century after Yellowstone became the world's first national park, GNRA and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Gateway's sister park, became the first two national parks adjacent to dense urban populations. RPA's advocacy for urban parkland in the 1960s helped pave the way for interest in such a park, and we later supported it in its infancy. But for various reasons the park has never lived up to its potential in terms of usage, and the general population is still remarkably ignorant of even its existence.

There is a chance now to change this and to positively influence the future of Gateway. The National Park Service is currently in the early stages of its revision to Gateway's General Management Plan, the guiding document for Park Service activities in the area. This is the first time since 1979 that the National Park Service has systematically revised its masterplan for the park. Collaborating with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), Regional Plan Association conducted focus groups and meeting with key stakeholders to address Gateway's challenges and opportunities.

Not only is the park large (with GNRA at 26,000 acres, the Park Service is one of the largest landowners in New York City), but it is also comprised of about two-dozen separate tracts of land and islands that span between two states and three boroughs of New York City. The different pieces of Gateway are isolated from population centers and do not have sufficient public transit. Diffuse park uses and the lack of a central visitor center makes for difficult orientation at many of the sites.

Beginning in 2007 with a design competition launched by NPCA, Columbia University, and the Van Alen Institute, the restructuring of the park uses has been in the minds of local planners for nearly three years now. A fresh look at how to use Floyd Bennett Field, New York's first municipal airfield, was given particular importance. Six finalists were selected out of over 250 entries. Working with partner group NPCA, RPA put together five recommendations for meeting the challenges of design, programming and management initiatives for the former airfield site.

Our recommendations range from better emphasizing visitor opportunities and concentrating activities in central locations to opening an intermodal transit hub or using Gateway to showcase New York as a front-runner in the field of climate change research. However, it is likely that few of these ideas can come to fruition without first achieving our final, and perhaps most significant recommendation.

In our last recommendation, RPA advocates that federal legislation create a Task Force to help elevate Floyd Bennett Field, Jamaica Bay, and Gateway as a whole, in the public eye. It is clear that, due to lack of expertise, funding, or coordinated decisions, the National Park Service cannot achieve its goals to restructure and reinvent Gateway's park sites without help. We suggest it may be time to convene a structure similar to the commission that led GNRA during its first ten years to ensure that agency decisions at all levels of government reflect a common goal for the park. By integrating the Park Service's objectives with the City and the State's infrastructure initiatives, wetland restoration and stormwater management processes, and with the City's updated PlaNYC 2030 program, we believe a brighter future for Gateway can be achieved.

We recommended that a long-term institutional partnership between the Park Service, other federal agencies, the State, City, and civic and community leadership join together to represent GNRA as a unified voice with a unified objective. This way, perhaps a decade down the road, when the Seaport is packed with people enjoying the waterfront, maybe a few more of them will be thinking about taking a trip out to our city's great urban national park.

With guidance from the National Parks Conservation Association, RPA will be staffing the Floyd Bennett Field Blue Ribbon Panel, along with Senator Schumer and Congressman Weiner.

For more information or to read RPA's report, "The Path Forward," go here: http://www.rpa.org/2010/04/envisioning-gateway-floyd-bennett-field-and-beyond.html.