Staten Island Landfill Park Proves Savior in Hurricane
By Michael Kimmelman
During Hurricane Sandy, the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island absorbed a critical part of the storm surge. Its hills and waterways spared nearby neighborhoods like Travis, Bulls Head, New Springville and Arden Heights much worse flooding. The 2,200-acre site, which closed a decade ago and is being turned into a park, was also temporarily reopened as a transfer station, helping officials and relief agencies clear debris from around the city.
If many New Yorkers, Staten Islanders included, still can't help thinking of the place as a mountain range of stinking trash, that's understandable. But since its closing, Fresh Kills has become a model for landfill reclamation around the world, having been transformed into a vast green space full of wildlife. Now it is also demonstrating the role of wetland buffers in battling rising waters.
Maybe this will help push officials to ready what is known as Freshkills Park for visitors. James Corner, the landscape architect who helped design the High Line and heads the firm Field Operations, won a competition years ago to transform the site and imagined a decades-long, evolving earthwork of different grasses, grown, cut and replanted, creating a rich new soil and landscape.
It's a visionary plan. But regulatory and financial hurdles, along with the usual bureaucratic conflicts, have stalled progress. The state environmental agency wants to make sure the site is safe, which makes sense. At the same time, the price tag - by some estimates, hundreds of millions of dollars - has clearly daunted city leaders and led officials to pursue a piecemeal transformation that could undo Mr. Corner's concept.
Considering the unconscionable $4 billion (or more) that is being squandered on a new PATH station at the World Trade Center site for perhaps 50,000 commuters, the cost of Fresh Kills doesn't sound quite so crazy. Now there's word that the Metropolitan Transit Authority may need to spend $600 million to restore the South Ferry subway station, which opened just in 2009 and was flooded by the storm. It's hard to say which is more scandalous, that the authority's planners hadn't anticipated flooding at a station on the water's edge, or that subway fare increases will partly go to pay for their shortsightedness.
By comparison, Fresh Kills has come out smelling like roses.
I recently paid a visit and shot a video of the site with my colleague David Frank and Eloise Hirsh, administrator of Freshkills Park for the New York City Parks Department. No wonder Mr. Corner discovered such potential in what has become a timely research post for climate change and ecological restoration. Once it is opened to the public, the park also promises to repay long-suffering Staten Island residents who endured generations of stench and anger, and more than that, to give the entire city an immense, bucolic urban playland - a 21st-century postindustrial landmark rising from mounds of 20th-century waste.
Who knows? In its shift from blight to boon, it could become a park as unexpected and transformative for the city as the High Line.