Written by Linda Portney Goldstein Friday, 24 June 2011 00:00
Protestors from the Hands of Change Civic Association carrying signs protesting the closure of Alvan O. Petrus Memorial Park in Port Washington gathered outside the council chamber prior to the June 14 Town of North Hempstead Council meeting. When the meeting started demonstrators filled an entire section of the council chamber.
Hands of Change Civic Association is a community-based Port Washington group lobbying the Town Council to open an area on Port Washington Boulevard just south of Harbor Road, by removing a fence which has surrounded the parcel for the last two years. Members of the civic group believe that removing the fence will restore much-needed open, age appropriate play space for the children of their community The lot is commonly referred to as Alvan O. Petrus Memorial Park and is adjacent to the northern corner of the Roberta Nixon Houses at Harbor Homes. The members of the Hands of Change Civic Association are residents of the Roberta Nixon Homes and the surrounding area along Harbor Road and the Cow Bay Apartment complex.
About 20 adults and as many children and teens turned out for the protest claiming that after years of use their access to a public recreation area has been denied. Supervisor Kaiman, noting the large number of young children among the protestors and the fact that Wandell Thomas, president of the group and Ray Ross, treasurer were committed to staying until the open mike portion at the end of the evening, called a brief recess for a conversation with the members of the organization.
During an impassioned exchange in Supervisor Kaiman’s conference room, it became clear that this is a highly charged emotional issue. Councilman Anthony Ferrara prevailed upon those present to tone down the rhetoric and work towards an open dialogue. Supervisor Kaiman committed to arranging a meeting between the civic group and Sean Rainey, executive director of the Town of North Hempstead Housing Authority.
As with most public controversy, many so-called facts are in question. The only indisputable fact is that the Housing Authority has been in control of this parcel of land since 1951 when it was obtained from a private individual and mandated to be used for affordable housing. It is also a matter of public record that, although the parcel has been used and referred to as a park, it was never officially designated a park and never came under the purview of the parks department.
There is reference made to the Alvan O. Petrus Memorial Park by then-Town Supervisor May Newburger in minutes of the April 22, 2003 meeting, in which she states that “to me this space (referred to as a park) is an integral part of this community. It’s all very well to have playgrounds… but we are always concerned about the teenaged kids and the kids who use the basketball courts.” It is unclear from the minutes of that meeting how the facility was funded and maintained. Members of the civic association say the community kept the park clean and groomed.
Housing Authority representatives say they are not responsible for parks and they cannot legally use their funds for park maintenance. “There is ample public space inside the housing development for children to play. Older children always ride bikes and skateboards in the street regardless of where they live,” said a spokesman for the Housing Authority. “The fence was erected two years ago in response to complaints by neighbors about noise and unsafe activity. The Port Washington Police were called on numerous occasions. The fence was put up to protect the public.”
Hands of Change leaders maintain that until the fence was erected, neighborhood children rode bikes, skateboarded and played basketball at the park. They challenge the Housing Authority’s view of events leading to the erection of the fence. They want the fence removed and the park “returned to their children.”
What will happen if the fence is removed remains unclear. Inspection of the property reveals an elevated site that is thoroughly overgrown. The area designated as a basketball court is in disrepair. If the fence is removed, long-term questions as to the rehabilitation and ongoing maintenance of the park will have to be addressed.
In addition to the meeting between the Civic Association and Housing Authority Executive Director Sean Rainey, arranged by Supervisor Kaiman in order to initiate “a creative discourse aimed at a solution,” Rainey said he will also be meeting with the residents of the Roberta Nixon Houses to ascertain their sentiments on the subject of the park.
Supervisor Kaiman repeatedly emphasized that the Town Council is powerless to remove the fence since they do not own the property. Wandell Thomas, on behalf of the civic association, asked that the power of persuasion be used to influence the members of the Housing Authority.
However, there is yet another level of complexity to this story. The entire property is now owned by a private LLC comprised of the Housing Authority and a number of banks including JPMorgan Chase which holds the mortgage. The commissioners of the Housing Authority sit on the board of directors of the LLC but can they force a private corporation to remove the fence and establish a park?
Many questions remain and the only certainty about this dispute is that there will be additional developments and the resolution will not come easily.