Commissioner Benepe talks of razing reservoir's woods

There is a terrible fate awaiting the 23-acre forest at the Ridgewood Reservoir. Located on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, it is nestled within Highland Park, one of eight “destination parks” slated for extensive capital restoration under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative. The reservoir is just 4 miles from the Maspeth-Middle Village area. The woodland within one of its basins will be eradicated, as dictated by NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, to make way for synthetic turf sporting facilities and ball fields. Fifty million dollars was budgeted for this locale, yet most of the money will be wasted and the unique opportunity for a nature preserve and environmental center to serve the families and educational institutions located in Brooklyn and Queens will be squandered.

Pleas for preservation by community leaders and other public supporters were made during the two public listening sessions held in summer 2007 by the Brooklyn and Queens Parks Commissioners. However, Commissioner Benepe publicly stated on October 14th that the city intends to go forth with a plan to raze the forest and replace it with sports fields, because to paraphrase his words, “there is an obesity problem in the city and kids need to be encouraged to exercise.”

Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s promise to add one million trees to the landscape of New York City by 2030, mostly along city sidewalks, Commissioner Benepe chooses to subtract existing trees by clear cutting a forest. At least twenty-three acres of native oaks, locusts, sweetgums, red maples and other native species – trees numbering in the thousands – are present in just one basin at Ridgewood Reservoir, making Benepe’s decision an enigmatic, paradoxical and regrettable one.

Surveys have shown that a wide diversity of native plants, wildlife, and birds flourish in this tract that over decades when left undisturbed, became a natural sanctuary. Since the spring of 2007, over 136 species of different birds were documented; state endangered and threatened species migrate and breed throughout the Ridgewood Reservoir’s basins. Propagating here is Slender Blue Iris, on the state’s threatened species list. Vernal ponds, birch bogs, and other diversified natural habitats provide homes for all kinds of flora, fungi, fauna, and fascinating insect life.

Why not preserve this incredible natural region for present and future generations? Our inner city children and young adults, particularly in adjoining community board districts, as well those attending city schools and colleges, would reap the rewards of a nature preserve and eco-study site. Why not spend the money wisely and upgrade the sports fields and other features of adjacent Highland Park outside the reservoir borders which are currently in terrible disrepair? Ridgewood Reservoir can become a natural tranquil sanctuary replete with various bucolic elements and enhancements that all residents can enjoy. The way it stands now, the projected cost of labor to destroy the trees, chip them, and the follow-up construction will go far beyond the $50 million price tag – all for one dimensional sports purposes. From the Trust for Public Land website: “New York City has over 722 baseball fields and 600 plus basketball courts, but only sixteen nature preserves, a terribly disproportionate and discouraging ratio in a city boasting over seven million residents. In fact, as stated by the NYC Department of Parks Green Pages, the total acreage in Brooklyn and Queens designated as ‘natural areas’ (out of a total citywide 11,072 acres) is a paltry combined 3,063 acres.”

Perhaps one day, a Queens-born child whose early wonder of nature borne from visits to a future Ridgewood Reservoir Nature Park may find a solution to global warming. The current parks plan will actually contribute to this serious problem! Furthermore, a forested open space also minimizes the detrimental impact of storm water runoff, as proclaimed by the PlaNYC Interagency Best Management Practices Task Force.

Forest trees are special organisms. Trees provide shade, cooler temperatures, and most importantly, purify the air. Asthma rates are terribly high along the Brooklyn-Queens border. Now imagine the loss of trees in the Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir region. Once the trees are gone, what will the air quality be like and what medical consequences will result? Furthermore, trees provide spiritual connection and a pacifying effect upon people who walk beneath them; it is hypothesized that trees have the uncanny effects of reducing stress and mental fatigue within people. Go to any park and see where patrons sit: most of them will be under or near a tree.

Therefore, if restored and designed appropriately, Ridgewood Reservoir stands to become a premier urban destination rivaling any other urban nature park. Features like arboretums, community gardens, botanical and rock gardens, interpretive nature trails, educational nature sections, an environmental center (by restoring one of the pump houses) or grasslands are some creative examples that would deeply enrich and beautify the locale and enhance the public visitor experience.

The Ridgewood Reservoir should be saved for posterity. As at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, most visitors are not birdwatchers, but people and families seeking peaceful walks, tranquility and quality time for themselves and their curious children. If Ridgewood Reservoir’s forest is destroyed to make way for a sport field folly, then it does become a tragic decision, brought about by a myopic, indifferent NYC Parks Department who would put the interests of turf contractors before its constituents. Along with Alley Pond Park, Prospect Park and Forest Park, Ridgewood Reservoir represents the last vestiges of forest in Brooklyn and Queens. Therefore, it behooves us to save this unique but threatened habitat. In essence, a former president of the Nature Conservancy, John Sawhill, said it best, “In the end, our society will be defined not by what we create, but what we refuse to destroy.”

Peter Dorosh is the president of the Brooklyn Bird Club

Please visit for more information about preserving the Ridgewood Reservoir.

Brief history of the Ridgewood Reservoir

Ground was broken for the Ridgewood Reservoir on July 11, 1856 on the site of two expansive farms. Water was first raised into the Reservoir on November 18, 1858 by two large pumps, each with a capacity of 14 million gallons per-day. At this point there were 2 only chambers of the reservoir. By 1863, there was need for a third basin, and by 1868, the Ridgewood Reservoir held an average of 154,400,000 gallons daily, enough to supply the City of Brooklyn for ten days at that time. Today, New York City uses around 1.1 billion gallons daily.

The Ridgewood Reservoir remained in regular service until 1959. From 1960 to 1989, the reservoir’s third basin was filled each summer with water from the City’s massive upstate reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains, and used sporadically as a backup supply for parts of Brooklyn and Queens. The entire complex has sat idle since 1990. In 2004, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection turned ownership of the site over to the Department of Parks and Recreation. – Source: NYC.GOV