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Green Apples and Bad Apples: 10 environmental sites in New York City

Eric Goldstein

Posted April 21, 2008 in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably

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For those of use who can remember it, Earth Day 1970 in New York was every much as watershed an event here as it was elsewhere in the country. Thirty-eight years ago this week, tens of thousands of New Yorkers poured onto the streets of Manhattan to demand clean air, safe water and environmental protection in every sphere of city life. 

To mark the anniversary we are releasing NRDC’s second New York City Green Apples, Bad Apples report. In it my colleague and co-author Ari Kahn and I list some of the city’s best environmental places and also some of its most environmentally worrisome locations, specifically those that have “ripened” over the past 12 months. 

These five “Green Apples” – our environmental bright spots – and five “Bad Apples” – the environmental trouble spots are located throughout the city’s five boroughs. Thanks to the magic of our web department there is also an accompanying interactive map with the spots highlighted.  

green apples bad apples map preview

Now without further ado, here is NRDC’s New York Urban Program 2008 Earth Day picks for New York City:

NRDC’S NEW YORK CITY GREEN APPLES, Earth Day 2008

NORTH MOUNT LORETTO WOODS (Staten Island)

In the nation’s most densely populated city, open space is always at a premium.  And even Staten Island, the least populated of the city’s five boroughs, has experienced a surge of development pressure in recent years.  So when a significant open space acquisition is made, it is just cause for celebration.

Such is the case with respect to North Mount Loretto – a 75 acre parcel of woods, wetlands and wildlife on Staten Island’s south shore.  Last November, the New York archdiocese sold this 75 acre parcel to the State Department of Environmental Conservation, by way of the Trust for Public Land.  The new acquisition, north of Hyland Blvd, becomes a valued companion to the 194 acre parcel south of Hyland Blvd., which had previously been set aside for protection.  The original parcel contains mature woodlands, natural springs and a mile of uninterrupted coastline overlooking Raritan Bay. 

In addition to public recreation and other uses, the new acquisition will serve as a preserve for osprey, migrant birds, raccoons and possums.  And it apparently represents the single largest land protection measure in New York City over the past year.

Funds for the purchase were provided by the Port Authority of New York, through its Hudson-Raritan Estuary Resources Program.  And, recognizing the role of the Roman Catholic diocese in both the protection of the original property and in facilitating this new acquisition, the lighthouse on the original shorefront property has been renamed in honor of John Cardinal O’Connor. 

Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, the tenacious guardians of Staten Island’s natural resources, have long sought to safeguard these parcels from development and have rejoiced at the new acquisition.  We agree, and are pleased to designate North Mount Loretto Woods one of our Green Apples for Earth Day 2008.     


PUBLIC SCHOOL 154 (Brooklyn)

It’s not easy to identify the most environmentally friendly public school in New York City.  But based upon the activities that have taken place there over the past year, P.S. 154 in the Windsor Terrace section of Brooklyn would likely appear on the official list of finalists.

This spring, P.S. 154 became New York’s first public school to abandon environmentally burdensome, single-use polystyrene lunch trays.  Polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam, is a petroleum-based product (used among other things to manufacture the ubiquitous white coffee cup) whose familiar bulk can remain intact for thousands of years before decomposing.  Polystyrene also takes up a disproportionate amount of space in the nation’s landfills, is not commercially recyclable and when disposed of on land or water can become a hazard if swallowed by birds and marine mammals.  According to New York City Councilmember Bill de Blasio, the City’s Department of Education utilizes more than 850,000 polystyrene trays in school lunchrooms everyday.  De Blasio has introduced legislation that would ban restaurants, delis and other food establishments from using polystyrene take-out containers and prohibit city agencies from using polystyrene products completely.

Parents at Brooklyn’s P.S. 154 have grown tired of waiting for the Department of Education to come up with a more environmentally friendly product to use for serving their children’s lunches.  So, earlier this year, they announced that, with support from local businesses, they had found an environmentally preferable substitute for polystyrene trays at the school.  Beginning in the fall, lunch at P.S. 154 will be served on trays made from bagasse, a natural, nontoxic and biodegradable material made out of discarded sugar cane stalks, which quickly decomposes in landfills.

The switch from polystyrene trays is not the only green thing happening at P.S. 154, whose formal name is the Museum Alliance for Science and Technology Magnet School.  In the fall, the school’s new playground and outdoor science lab will be completed.  The playground is being built from recycled material and the science lab will have a windmill and solar powered water fountain, according to Gina de la Chesnaye, one of the parents responsible for getting the new food trays into the school.  Parent volunteers will also be working with students to run a composting program for the new food trays and they expect to divert 3500 pounds of waste away from landfills every year.  These and other environmental programs are moving ahead with the support and encouragement of P.S. 154’s Principal, Sam Ortiz.

In recognition of its leadership on the polystyrene campaign and for its other ecological advances (and with the hope that other schools will join the friendly competition to become New York City’s greenest public school), we are pleased to recognize P.S. 154 with an Earth Day 2008 Green Apple.

 

QUEENS BOTANICAL GARDEN’S VISITOR CENTER

Global climate change is the number one environmental issue facing the nation and indeed the planet.  In New York, energy used in buildings is the single largest generator of global warming gases, accounting for more than three-quarters of total emissions.  As a result, one of the most effective steps we can take to combat climate change in New York is to reduce the carbon footprint of new construction.

In 2005, the New York City Council passed and Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed Local Law 86.  It requires that new construction and renovation of city-owned and city-funded buildings meet ambitious standards for energy-conservation and green design.  And it directs that all new city construction meet green building standards, as certified by the U.S. Green Buildings Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

The new visitor center at the Queens Botanical Garden, which officially opened this past September, is perhaps New York City’s greenest public building and a showcase for the environmental, energy-saving and architectural benefits of green construction.  The building contains an auditorium, reception and gallery spaces, meeting rooms and offices.  And it is a model of efficiency: it gets 17% of its energy from rooftop solar panels, it heats its water using geothermal power and has an 8,000 square foot green roof that is performing beyond expectations.  According to Jennifer Souder, the Garden’s Director of Capital Projects, preliminary tests from last summer measured the building’s green roof temperature at 82 degrees, while nearby white and black tar roofs were cooking at 115 and 170 degrees respectively.  Expect significant energy savings and a reduction in the “urban heat island” effect to result from this facility.

The new Visitor Center’s other green features are also impressive.  Stormwater is captured, filtered through grasslands and then used to supply the garden’s decorative fountains and to water its numerous plants and greenery.  To date, the system has completely contained stormwater runoff on site, even during the heaviest downpours – lessening the load on the city’s already over-taxed combined sewer system.  Meanwhile, grey water from showers used by staff is captured, filtered and then used in the building’s toilets.  For these and other reasons, the building is in line to receive a LEED platinum certification  When it does, it will be one of the first entire buildings in New York City, and potentially the first outside of Manhattan, to achieve this coveted classification. 

The state-of-the-art visitor center could become a new source of pride to Queens’ diverse population.  Of equal importance, it can serve as a stellar example of how green building techniques can today be employed to reduce environmental burdens and long-term operating costs of new and renovated construction in New York.  It is with pleasure that we designate the Queens Botanical Garden’s new Visitor Center as an Earth Day 2008 Green Apple.

 

STREET TREES (Bronx and citywide)

The commitment to plant 1 million new trees in New York City by 2017 may be the most visible and one of the most important environmental legacies of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  The program, originally announced by the Mayor on Earth Day 2007, is one of more than 100 environmental strategies described in the Mayor’s forward-looking sustainability plan, called PlaNYC.

Trees are true friends of the city’s environment.  They absorb storm water and help limit the overflow of sewers into our rivers.  They cool our neighborhoods in the summer, reducing energy demand and air pollution from dirty auxiliary power plants that operate on the hottest days of the year.  And they absorb CO2.  Perhaps best of all, they beautify neighborhoods and make our city more livable.  Imagine what New York City would be like without the 5 million trees we have in our parks and on our streets today.

But New York City is a tough town for trees.  One out of ten street trees die within the first two years of being planted.  And even stately, mature and healthy trees face threats such as lack of water, damage from motor vehicles and even intentional destruction.

The City Parks Department, in cooperation with Bette Midler’s New York Tree Restoration Project is attempted to fulfill the Mayor’s ambitious goals, with help from the public.  The Department reports that almost 55,000 trees have been planted over the past twelve months -- many in neighborhoods like Morrisania and the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, where the need for street trees are great.  Sustainable South Bronx has been one of the dedicated local groups assisting in this tree planting effort.  In Hunts Point for example, the group has worked with community volunteers to identify new planting sites and to recruit volunteers to tend to the trees once they have taken root.

To Morrisania and Hunts Point neighborhoods which have advanced an initial round of street tree planting, and which deserve continued attention on this front, we designate an Earth Day 2008 Green Apple.

WEST HARLEM WATERFRONT PARK (Manhattan)

New York City’s Hudson River waterfront is experiencing a renaissance.  The creation of the Hudson River Park in 1998 began the transformation from the Battery to 59th Street.  Access to the river has expanded, creating new places for New Yorkers to jog, bike, sunbathe and even launch kayaks into the river.  And this waterfront revitalization has coincided with a cleaner Hudson River, with levels of traditional water pollutants having declined considerably over the last two decades. 

Now, at long last, eagerly-awaited change is coming to northern Manhattan’s waterfront as well.  This summer, the West Harlem Waterfront Park will officially open.  A four block long esplanade will stretch between St. Clair Place and West 133rd Street, replacing an asphalt parking lot with lawns, play areas and woodsy gathering spots overlooking the Hudson.  Two new piers will allow for kayaking, fishing and water taxi service.  The Science Barge – an exploratory museum for children of all ages – will be docked at the new park this summer.  And the park’s completion will allow for bicycle and pedestrian paths to connect with riverfront greenways to the south and north. 

The new park fulfills the joint vision of West Harlem Environmental Action’s executive director Peggy Shepard and Community Board 9 leaders who worked with public officials for more than a decade.  They helped convince the New York City Economic Development Corporation to jettison earlier development plans and to advance instead an innovative “community vision” for the site.  New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told the New York Times that the new park will complete “the big missing link in the Hudson River greenway.”

And northern Manhattan community activists aren’t finished yet. In late 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked WE ACT to organize a broad-based community planning process to identify possible uses for the now closed Sanitation Department Marine Transfer Station, which is adjacent to the new park. 

Responsible elected officials, community organizations and agency planners deserve a pat on the back for their commitment and determination to return this section of the waterfront to the West Harlem community.  We designate, with pleasure, the new Hudson River Waterfront Park as an Earth Day 2008 Green Apple.


NRDC`S NEW YORK CITY BAD APPLES, Earth Day 2008 

ENERGY-WASTING RETAIL ESTABLISHMENTS WITH OPEN DOORS IN SUMMER (Manhattan and citywide)

America will never slow the rate of global warming if we don’t find ways to burn less fossil fuel.  And we’ll never be able to reduce fossil fuel usage if we continue to pursue profligate energy-wasting activities.  Unfortunately, some New Yorkers still don’t understand these basic facts or are choosing to ignore the long-range impacts of their actions.

While there are many energy-wasting examples to choose from, one particularly wasteful activity is the practice of certain retail establishments that set their air conditioning systems on “cold” and leave their front doors open wide during hot summer months.  (The purpose of this practice is presumably to entice additional customers into the store by sending a frigid blast of air onto the sidewalk.)

Whatever benefits it may have as a customer lure, this practice has significant adverse energy and air pollution impacts.  According to the Long Island Power Authority, retailers increase their electricity consumption by 20% to 25% when they leave their doors open.  And increasing power demand on the hottest summer days also leads to increased air pollution, as the auxiliary back-up power supplies are called upon to meet peak demands.  Unnecessarily boosting summer peak power demands can even make occasional brown-outs more likely.  In short, this is a practice that places personal business considerations over societal needs. 

City Councilwoman Gale Brewer has introduced legislation that would prohibit commercial establishments from leaving doors open while air conditioners are blasting.  We hope the Council holds hearings on this concept in coming months.

We have not singled out a particular retailer for engaging in this conduct.  In this regard, we have most frequently noticed this energy-wasting practice as we pass in front of high-end fashion clothing stores on popular shopping streets in Manhattan and across the city.  So we designate the high-end retail establishments whose managers keep their doors open in summer, while their air conditioners pour cold air into the streets, as Earth Day 2008 Bad Apples.

 

METROPOLITAN TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY’S RECYCLING OFFICE (Manhattan)

New York City’s world-renowned subway system has 468 stations and not a single one is equipped with separate bins to collect newspapers, bottles and cans for recycling.  Nineteen years after the New York City Council passed its landmark mandatory recycling law -- mandating that New Yorkers separate trash for recycling as a means of conserving natural resources and reducing pollution -- the New York City transit system still refuses to get on board with a recycling program that allows for riders to participate. The failure of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“MTA”), the subway system’s corporate parent to provide bins for riders to recycle is especially disappointing because newspapers and magazines are by far the largest single component of the transit waste stream, are relatively easy to riders to sort and have economic value as recycled materials.

To be sure, as MTA officials note, workers do perform “post-collection separation” -- picking through the station trash, after collection, to cull out recyclables.  But such a process, where recyclables are first mixed in with food waste and other trash by the public before being separated, inevitably leads to higher levels of contaminated recyclables.  And this post-collection recycling effort, by failing to provide station receptacles for papers and for bottles and cans, sends a confusing message to New Yorkers about what their role should be in participating in the city’s recycling program. 

In contrast, other leading transit systems throughout North America provide their riders with accessible and convenient opportunities to recycle.  Transit systems in seven other cities surveyed by NRDC earlier this year, including Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston, Montreal and San Francisco, all have recycling containers available in stations for their riding public.  And Toronto, which may have the most ambitious recycling program, first tried post-collection separation, but later switched to separate bins that accept containers and paper in all of its 69 stations.  And they reportedly did so with no increase in overall disposal costs.  Ironically, the MTA has long provided large paper recycling bins at Grand Central Terminal for Metro-North riders.  That program continues to be both an environmental and economic success.

It pains us to give a Bad Apple designation to the MTA, whose transit system is so critical to the region’s mobility and so responsible for its low per capita energy consumption.  (Indeed, just last week,  Governor David Patterson and the MTA announced new sustainability initiatives intended to, among other things, further reduce the transit system’s carbon footprint.)

But for nearly two decades, the MTA has stymied efforts to cooperate in building public participation in New York City’s cornerstone recycling program.  For this shortcoming, the MTA office responsible for its solid waste program has earned our Earth Day 2008 Bad Apple designation.

 

NEW YORK ORGANIC FERTILIZER COMPANY AND NYC’S HUNTS POINT WASTEWATER TREATMENT PLANT (Bronx)

The South Bronx has for decades received more than its fair share on environmental burdens.  Highways have torn through neighborhoods.  Motor vehicle pollution has violated air quality standards and exacerbated childhood asthma.  Waterfront access and open space have been hard to come by.  While progress has certainly been made thanks to sustained community advocacy and work by local elected officials, problems of environmental justice persist.

A major ongoing challenge to many South Bronx residents are the noxious odors that waft into portions of the Hunts Point community from two sewage-related facilities -- the city-owned and operated Hunts Point Water Pollution Control Plant and the privately owned, city-contracted New York Organic Fertilizer Company.  Despite their innocent-sounding names, these two facilities are responsible for years of air pollution, according to Mothers on the Move, a local social justice organization that has been among the neighborhood groups shining a spotlight on the problems.

The New York Organic Fertilizer Company has a contract with the city to treat several hundred tons a day of sludge from city sewage plants and, at its South Bronx facility, to dry the sludge and turn it into “pellets” for eventual use as fertilizer.  The plant has been in operation since 1992.  Yet despite efforts by the company and government officials to remediate the problem, the stench is continuing, local residents say.

To make matters worse, the City’s giant Hunts Point Wastewater Treatment Plant is located only blocks away.  This plant treats raw sewage from portions of the Bronx (and from Rikers and City Island), before discharging it into surrounding waters.  Although it is not operating at capacity (200 million gallons a day), the Hunts Point plant is contributing to air quality problems that continue to make life unpleasant and at times unbearable for many of its neighbors.  Moreover, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which operates the plant, has an expansion in the works.  It hopes to site four, 13-story egg-shaped digesters (that break down sewage sludge) near the plant where they would impinge on the tiny oasis of Barretto Point Park.

Despite mock funerals, stockholder protests, and periodic objections from such local officials as Congressman Jose Serrano and City Councilwoman Maria de Carmen Arroyo, the foul smells from these sewage facilities continue, neighbors say, and seem likely to make for another unpleasant summer in Hunts Point.  The New York Organic Fertilizer Company and the Hunts Point Wastewater Treatment Plant accordingly are due an Earth Day 2008 Bad Apple designation.

 

RIDGEWOOD RESERVOIR’S URBAN FOREST (Queens)

 

Environment scientist and author John Waldman calls the pond at Ridgewood “one of the wildest places in all of New York City.”  More than 120 species of birds, including seven that are endangered, have been spotted flitting about its unusual urban forest.  And according to a study completed for the City’s Parks Department, the area is “highly significant for the biodiversity of New York City and the region.”

Nevertheless, the 50 acre site that was once home to the Ridgewood Reservoir, on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, is itself endangered as a result of proposed action by the city to have at least a portion of the location “developed as a public park.”

The focus of this dispute is the old Ridgewood Reservoir, which served as a primary source of drinking water for Brooklyn residents in the mid and late 1800s, and into the 20th century.  As reliance on the city’s Catskill and Delaware system grew in the 1900s, reliance on the Ridgewood Reservoir (and the other Brooklyn Water Works reservoirs that stretched into southern Nassau County) declined.  The Ridgewood Reservoir was last used in regular service in 1959, and the entire complex was transferred to the City Department of Parks & Recreation in 2004.

The controversy began shortly thereafter, as the Parks Department envisioned turning much of the acreage over to active recreational uses such as bike paths and artificial-turf ball fields.  But the Reservoir’s water storage basins, empty for decades, now provide a unique area for observing the process of urban reforestation.  And the dense forest that now covers much of the terrain is viewed by nature guardians like Rob Jett and the Ridgewood Reservoir Education and Preservation Project as an irreplaceable nature preserve than is inappropriate for other uses -- even for sports fields, bike paths and other active recreational activities.

Last fall, threats to the reservoir’s forests became more urgent, with a proposal by the Parks Department to clear at least 20 acres of land and advance a $46 million active recreation plan at the site.  Advocates for preserving the reservoir land for nature and urban environmental education have suggested instead that the Parks Department fix up the adjacent Highland Park, which they note is already set up for active recreation and is in need of an infusion of Parks Department capital funding.

For not yet heeding the call to preserve this unique natural setting in the heart of New York City (but with the understanding that it is not too late for a change of course), we award the Parks Department plans to develop the Ridgewood Reservoir landscape with an Earth Day 2008 Bad Apple designation.

 

UNDEVELOPED FORMER-NASCAR SITE (Staten Island)

It is the largest undeveloped site in the City of New York.  At 676 acres, it is four-fifths the size of Central Park.  And the use to which it is ultimately put could have important consequences for the urban environment.

The parcel in question is on Staten Island’s west shore, in the community of Bloomfield, overlooking the Goethals Bridge.  And it already has a controversial past.  The site was assembled by officials of the International Speedway Corp, which had hoped to build an 82,500 seat NASCAR racetrack there.  But fears of traffic congestion and widespread political opposition led the owners to withdraw that proposal.  Then, a plan to sell the site to one of the nation’s largest developers of distribution warehouses fell through last year.  Today, the property is again up for sale.  And many elected officials from the borough are now hoping that the Port Authority will consider acquiring the site for some maritime-related use.

How this property is developed is likely to have significant environmental impacts for Staten Island.  First, there is the question of traffic -- will this industrial site and the surrounding highway network be able to hand hundreds or even thousands of additional truck trips a day that could result from some possible uses?  And what air quality impacts would likely result from such traffic patterns? 

There are also concerns regarding contaminated fill, which was apparently placed on the property several years ago, in anticipation of race track construction, and which has been the subject of a State Department of Environmental Conservation enforcement proceeding.  (The site itself was a former oil tank farm, so whatever its final use, the environmental clean-up will have to be conducted with utmost care.)  Finally, at water’s edge, the property has ecologically important tidal wetlands – they too deserve protection and must be taken into consideration as final plans are developed.

Of course, future land use decisions for this site will not be made solely on the basis of conservation and pollution concerns.  Yet the earlier proposal by Councilmember Michael McMahon, which would have set aside land for a “clean technology” operation, safeguarded critical wetlands and even included some recreational facilities, retains some appeal.  Regardless of whatever development decisions are ultimately made in 2008 and beyond, it is essential that our elected officials pay serious attention to the environmental sensitivities of this site and the surrounding communities.  Until such assurances are provided, we are designating the former NASCAR site as an Earth Day 2008 Bad Apple. 

(Many thanks to: Miquela Craytor, Gina de la Chesnaye, Susan Donogue and Morgan Monaco, Justin Green, Jennifer Greenfeld, Hilel Lofaso, Eva Lowendowsky, Kunal Malhotra, Principal Sam Ortiz, Ellen Pratt, Philip Silva, Jennifer Ward Souder, James Subudhi, Jendi Tarde, Laura Tickler, Russell Unger, and Jean Weinberg for their help in preparing this report.)

    

 

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Comments

Carsten Glaeser Ph.D, ASCAApr 24 2008 12:36 PM

The greening of NYC is great news and a real start for a sustainable future. But it's time to peel back the layers of this green onion. What is perceived as being green and sustainable may not really be green and sustainable. So is there a trade-off? Certainly. As an example, the installation of the Queens Botanic Garden green and sustainable, award winning, LEEDS certified administration building (on NYC DPR parkland) may be just be that- but what happened to the approx 45 large and mature, invaluable and irreplaceable shade trees around the building construction site now with permanently damaged vital tree roots caused by construction and excavation. The need to fully protect and preserve these publicly owned trees was ignored by all who had a stake in the outcome of this building with little concern of the future health, longevity and safety of these verdant denizens of our community. Many other mayoral agencies and their construction operations upon public landscapes inhabited with invaluable shade trees, engage in similar indifferent and arrogant behaviors toward our tree resources (ex. NYC SCA, DDC, DEP, DPR). As an outcome of the their training and education, the behavior of engineers, architects and administrators (largely responsible for tree damages) are likely not to change much in the near future.

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