A young boy stood nervously behind a microphone on Saturday afternoon.
“We are a family, and I think this park should stay here,” he said. He was flanked by several smiling elected officials and members of his community at Holmes Towers. The nearly 1,000-resident housing project at First Avenue and E. 92nd Street — and specifically, a small playground between the towers — is the future site of a new building in the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) NextGen Neighborhoods initiative. The effort aims to close the authority’s $17 billion budget deficit by partnering with private developers. Housing Authority officials set their sights on the Holmes Towers playground a year ago, and the community has been fighting them ever since.
“Do you want to get rid of this playground? Do you want to put up fake affordable housing that you could never afford?” Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the area, asked the crowd of 50 people gathered at this weekend’s “Party to Protect the Playground” rally. Each time, the answer was an emphatic “no!”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and State Senator Liz Krueger joined Kallos in railing against the plan.
At a meeting with residents last October, the housing authority promised to make long-awaited repairs at the existing buildings in the Isaacs/Holmes public housing community and to give residents preference when the new building’s portion of affordable units are built, but that wasn’t enough to stem the reaction. The tenants walked out of that meeting, and have said that there is nothing that could make them agree to the project.
Saundrea Coleman, who has lived at Holmes Towers for more than two decades, said the housing authority should go through the official land use review process. “They think they’re not supposed to do that,” Coleman said. “We think that would be fair…we welcome all of our community to come and play here.”
Coleman added that her community has taken a couple of significant hits in the last few years. She mentioned the fight over the playground, new construction nearby that caused a blackout and the death of a resident this past spring who was run over by a garbage truck. That fatality highlighted the dangers of a new marine waste transfer station opening down the street in 2017.
“What I find sad about it is each administration puts their own commissioners in place who are only here for a limited amount of time,” she said. “But they’re making decisions for our lifetime. That’s not right.”
Due to the dreary weather, most of the music and festivities taking place to celebrate the playground were held inside. But for the main event the group moved outside to the make their voices heard – on the very turf in question.
With kids swinging off the monkey bars in the background, the elected officials blasted the housing authority’s plans to take away green space in an area that is starved of it. Maloney said the housing authority is “taking away a sense of hope for our young people.”
“What are they going to give us instead?” Maloney asked. “Concrete and glass and no play room.” Later on, Brewer described the plan as ill-fated and terrible.
Barely 24 hours before the rally, NYCHA released a statement announcing that they will conduct a series of family-friendly workshops where residents can help design a replacement playground. Friday also happened to be the last day the authority was accepting bids from developers to construct the new building, which the authority will require be started only after a new playground is built.
“Families participating in the playground workshops will be able to share feedback on the site of the new playground and the type and placement of engaging play equipment, from swings to slides,” the statement read.
Though the community was made aware of this development at the rally on Saturday, residents and officials were not satisfied. Opponents to the current plan wondered where NYCHA planned to put the new playground, and mourned the prospect of losing light and air that will be lost in an area that doesn’t have much to spare.