Reviving one of the most controversial proposals of the Giuliani years, the Bloomberg administration is moving forward with plans to build a $1 billion water-filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, The Observer has learned.
The plant would filter water that originates in the Croton Reservoir in northern Westchester County and ends up in sinks, bathtubs and pasta pots all over the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, lower Manhattan and in many neighborhoods in the Bronx.
But the decision to build the plant is certain to stir political opposition, particularly among community groups in the Bronx and among well-heeled guardians of Van Cortlandt Park, and it may even lead to one of the most difficult political fights of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure. It will also force some of the city’s most powerful elected officials, like Governor George Pataki, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, to take sides in what promises to be a contentious political struggle.
“Large projects always provoke community concerns, and we recognize that,” Christopher Ward, commissioner of the city Department of Environmental Protection, told The Observer . “This is a chance, however, to build this project in the right place and, at the same time, return real value to the community in the form of jobs and parks.”
The plan includes more than $100 million in parks and other amenities to make the proposal more attractive to nearby residents. And there are signs that these perks are proving persuasive. Two of the most powerful political leaders in the Bronx- Assemblyman and county leader Jose Rivera, and Borough President Adolfo Carrion-told The Observer that they’ve agreed to support the plan.
The administration’s proposal is a bold and surprising move, because many people assumed that plans to build the 11-acre plant under the ground of the Mosholu Golf Course, in Van Cortlandt Park, had been defeated for good. Elected officials, community groups and parks advocates spent years battling the plan in the late 1990’s. Opponents declared the plan dead in February 2001, when the State Supreme Court ruled that the city could not lawfully build the plant in the park land without the approval of the State Legislature.
Now the Bloomberg administration is reviving the proposal, arguing that the Van Cortlandt site is the cheapest, safest and most practical of available locations. Opponents are certain to mobilize once again, and they are expected to argue both that the plant is unnecessary and that park land is too scarce to be used for such a project.
“Why this administration would want to destroy part of the park is beyond me,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, whose district includes Van Cortlandt Park. “Building it on park land in a city where park land is precious is bad public policy. The community is gearing up to fight this.”
“He’s wrong,” Mr. Ward countered. “We’re building the plant underground and rebuilding an even better park on top.”
If Mr. Bloomberg succeeds in winning over the State Legislature-which is far from a foregone conclusion-it will be another example of the Mayor’s willingness to launch difficult, large-scale projects in tight economic times. It will also showcase the administration’s ability to use quiet, behind-the-scenes wooing to triumph over noisy political opposition. The Bloomberg administration is reviving the proposal now because it faces an April deadline, imposed by the federal government, to choose a site for the plant.
City Hall may be in a far better position now to win the coming battle than it was during the Giuliani years. Unlike last time, Bloomberg administration officials have spent months lining up political support for the proposal before going public. Because the courts have ruled that the project requires legislative approval, city officials need to win over Bronx Assembly members, who will, in turn, pressure Mr. Silver to back the plan.
To that end, officials have spent months lobbying Bronx political leaders and have promised to fund parks, recreation fields and nature preserves in the borough to make it easier for local elected officials to support the plan.
“Given the difficult history, we have tried to work closely with the Bronx leadership to create a project that everyone can support,” Mr. Ward said.
The efforts appear to be getting results. Mr. Rivera, the Bronx Democratic county leader, told The Observer that he has agreed to support the plan and expects many of his colleagues to follow suit.
“I am working with my colleagues in the Assembly and the City Council to support this project,” Mr. Rivera said. “The Bronx deserves the jobs and long-term economic-development benefits that would come with this project.”
“I’ve reluctantly concluded that if a filtration plant must be built, the Bronx and the city should get the benefits,” added Mr. Carrion, the Bronx borough president, a former opponent of the plan. “The billion-dollar-plus cost of this project will create hundreds of jobs and important contracts for companies that employ hundreds of other New Yorkers.”
With war raging in Iraq and New Yorkers fearing for their safety, the business of the city must go on nevertheless, and one of the most pressing items on the city’s agenda is figuring out how to keep its drinking water clean. For more than a decade, the city has been trying to determine how best to deal with a nettlesome strain of bacteria known as cryptosporidia , a parasitic micro-organism that flourishes in the Croton Reservoir in northern Westchester. The organism itself isn’t the threat; the problem is that the bacteria has forced the city to treat water with huge amounts of chlorine, which may be a long-term health risk. Some studies say that chlorine creates chemical byproducts that have been linked to cancer and fetal-development problems.
The city agreed in 1992 to build a plant to filter Croton water under a consent order from the federal government. After dragging their feet for several years, city officials in 1998 unveiled the Mosholu plan. That proposal angered everyone from clergymen to community groups, who argued that the construction would disrupt life in the Bronx and deprive residents of a much-cherished wooded sanctuary. The proposal also aroused the opposition of several powerful lobbying groups, such as the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park.
At one point, the battle grew so contentious that opponents published a comic book entitled The Monster from the DEEP -a not-terribly-subtle reference to the D.E.P., or Department of Environmental Protection, the city agency that will oversee the plant’s construction. The spoof featured wizards as stand-ins for city scientists.
After the court ruled that the plan required Albany’s approval, city officials all but dropped the idea of building the plant on park land. They came up with two alternative locations: one on the Harlem River, near Fordham Road, and a city-owned parcel in Westchester County.
But the Bloomberg administration has now decided that Van Cortlandt Park is the best of the three. “The site is by far the best location for the filtration plant,” Mr. Ward said. “It is the least expensive and most secure.”
Yet there’s no question that Mr. Bloomberg will have a fight on his hands. To deal with the difficult political battle ahead, Mr. Ward and other city officials have shrewdly tried to forge an alliance with the emerging Bronx Democratic leadership, which includes Mr. Rivera, Mr. Carrion and other newly elected Assembly members. If things go their way, these efforts will outflank opponents and lead to Assembly approval of the site. The State Senate, controlled by Republicans, also must approve the plan.
The administration’s lobbying efforts have enraged the plan’s opponents. “The D.E.P. commissioner is sneaking around in back rooms and making deals with the Bronx leadership,” said Mr. Dinowitz. “The only thing missing is the smoke.”
But Mr. Ward dismissed the idea that the plan was a product of back-room maneuvering and said it would become a new model for large-scale capital projects in New York.
“The Bronx leadership has the chance to show that if done the right way, difficult construction projects can still be built in New York,” Mr. Ward said. “This will be good not only for the Bronx, but for the city as a whole.”