Ending a municipal drama that has dragged on for years, city and state officials have reached a deal with the Bloomberg administration to support construction of a controversial $1.5 billion water-filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, The Observer has learned.
Theagreementwas reached in recent days during private discussions among State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and aides to Mr. Bloomberg, according to sources familiar with the talks. It clears the way for the construction of one of the biggest and most politically charged proposals on the city’s agenda: a massive underground plant that would filter the water that flows from the Croton Reservoir, in northern Westchester County, into many neighborhoods in the Bronx and Manhattan.
The agreement, which could be announced as early as June 12, is a significant victory for the Bloomberg administration. The project, which opponents have stymied for nearly five years, concerns that most fundamental of municipal missions: keeping the city’s drinking water clean.
In securing support for the project, Mr. Bloomberg is succeeding where his predecessor failed. First proposed by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the late 1990′s, the plan gave rise to one of the most protracted and intense political battles in memory. Mr. Giuliani finally abandoned the plan in 2001 in the face of opposition from parks advocates and elected officials, who argued that it would waste taxpayer money and gobble up enormous swaths of precious parkland.
But the Bloomberg administration revived the plan several months ago, and has since managed to win support through a combination of behind-the-scenes diplomacy and, more important, a willingness to spend $240 million on new parkland in the Bronx.
The agreement has far-reaching implications for the entire city. When the plant is built, it will enhance the quality of the water that flows from millions of faucets and showerheads on the Upper East Side, downtown Manhattan, parts of the West Side, the Lower East Side and parts of the Bronx. The Croton reservoir system, which serves these neighborhoods, supplies 10 percent of the city’s drinking water.
According to sources, a crucial piece of this complex political puzzle fell into place when Christopher Ward, the head of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which will build the plant, agreed to do a supplemental environmental-impact statement sought by residents around the park. In exchange for that concession, Mr. Silver and Mr. Miller agreed to back the plan.
The support of these legislative leaders is crucial, because the city needs state legislation to build the plant on parkland. On June 10, Assembly leaders introduced the requisite bill, and according to sources, it will be voted on in coming days, with an assurance of Mr. Silver’s support. (A similar vote is certain to pass in the Senate, and Governor George Pataki’s support is also seen as certain.)
Mr. Miller, meanwhile, has agreed to deliver a home-rule message from the City Council as early as June 12, which Albany needs to pass laws that affect the city. Although nothing can be labeled a certainty in Albany, the support of Mr. Silver and Mr. Miller virtually assures that the project is going to happen.
Asked if a deal had been reached with City Hall, spokesmen for Mr. Silver and Mr. Miller declined comment. Mr. Ward also declined to comment.
The decision to support the Bloomberg administration’s plan is politically sensitive. Mr. Silver and Mr. Miller risk the considerable wrath of the plant’s opponents, who thought they had killed the plan for good in 2001. That’s when the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled that the city would need state legislation authorizing the use of parkland for the plant. Many observers believed it would be impossible to coax such legislation from Albany.
But, as The Observer first reported in March, the plan’s opponents were caught off-guard when the Bloomberg administration quietly revived the proposal. They mobilized once again, and opponents-including Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, the powerful civic group Friends of Van Cortlandt Park and many others-mounted a full-scale lobbying effort to persuade legislative leaders to oppose it.
Although a federal court order mandated that the city filter water from the Croton, some opponents wanted the city to drop plans for the plant entirely, saying that the science behind filtration was unsound.
But the city’s position has long been that a huge filtration plant is the best way to deal with a nettlesome strain of bacteria known as cryptosporidia , a parasitic microorganism that flourishes in the Croton Reservoir. 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.
Other opponents backed the idea of a plant, but argued that the city should build it at another location. The city was considering two other sites: one along the Harlem River, and another in Westchester.
But city engineers persisted in their argument that the Van Cortlandt Park site was easier and cheaper. And the plant-a huge construction project that will take five years to build and will create thousands of jobs-already had the support of the city’s powerful labor unions.
In the end, City Hall outmaneuvered the plan’s foes.
Bloomberg aides had spent months working behind the scenes to solidify support, long before their plan to revive the Van Cortlandt option became public.
One significant victory came in May, when City Hall won the support of environmentalists who had previously questioned the need for a filtration plant. After months of persistent lobbying by city officials, three big conservation groups-the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense and the New York League of Conservation Voters-endorsed the idea of filtration. While this endorsement didn’t concern the politically delicate question of where to put the plant, it was a huge step forward nonetheless.
Then there was the question of location. To win support for building the plant in Van Cortlandt Park, City Hall wooed the Bronx political leadership with promises of new parkland elsewhere in the borough. This made it easier for local elected officials to back the plan in the face of vociferous community opposition.
Those efforts infuriated the plan’s foes, who have accused City Hall of using taxpayer money to buy off the opposition in a series of old-fashioned political deals. “The D.E.P. commissioner is sneaking around in back rooms and making deals with the Bronx leadership,” Mr. Dinowitz, the Bronx Assemblyman who opposes the plan, said at the time. “The only thing missing is the smoke.”
Now that the deal is consummated, however, even opponents seem resigned to seeing the plant built. “Our stance is that the park should be a location of last resort,” said Allison Farina, the government-affairs director for New Yorkers for Parks, a century-old civic group. “But if the city has to do this, we just hope they will follow zoning and environmental laws designed to protect parkland, which is a priceless commodity.”