Tuesday, May 30, 2006

"Off Track" New York Times, 5/28/6

Op-Ed Contributor
Off Track

Published: May 28, 2006

I LIVE in Brooklyn, and while I love its human energy and its variety of cultural and culinary offerings, there are days when I need a little nature. Luckily for me, my husband, our two children and other Brooklyn residents, there is a national park right in our backyards, the amazing Floyd Bennett Field.

Floyd Bennett Field is a 1,115-acre historical and natural gem in the southeast corner of Brooklyn. There's fishing, camping, nature trails, the city's largest community garden and a gorgeous bay ripe for dragging a seining net and investigating marine animals up close.

Now the actor and car-racing enthusiast Paul Newman and some city officials think it might be a good idea to bring Grand Prix-style racing to Floyd Bennett Field, creating a 3.5-mile course in the heart of the park. This is a deplorable idea.

Even if the racecourse were used for only one major yearly event (and that's what they're saying now), the negative impact of cars that roar around a track spewing out exhaust at 240 miles per hour would be devastating, causing irreversible damage to local and migratory wildlife as well as the general ecosystem, including a rare grasslands habitat.

The grandstands would hold 65,000 people even though right now there is a rule prohibiting more than 10,000 people at the park. Additionally, local families who now enjoy leisurely bicycle rides on the old runways (Floyd Bennett Field opened as the city's first municipal airport in 1931) on which the track would be built might be displaced.

It hardly seems worth converting the runways into a high-speed track that is used once a year, but things would quickly get worse if the track were used regularly for major events; there would be greater environmental destruction, and traffic jams on the Belt Parkway (already a living monument to tie-ups) and in surrounding communities would wreak havoc on Brooklyn. The park already plays host to a remote-control airplane field, model train enthusiasts and historic aircraft rehabilitators but these sanctioned hobbyists take up little space and have co-existed peacefully with the natural surroundings. An indoor sports complex will open in the fall and will be infinitely less destructive than a race track, while serving the needs of the community.

Of course, Mr. Newman is waving the proverbial golden carrot in front of the park, promising $1 million annually for the use of the "facility." When did we start referring to parkland as a facility to be commandered by wealthy developers? Why can't this parkland, just like the rest of the 26,000-acre Gateway National Recreation Area to which it belongs, get the same respect as, say, Yosemite or Yellowstone?

Just because Floyd Bennett Field is in New York City doesn't mean it has to be fast-paced. When it was created in 1972 as the nation's first urban national park, the intent was to provide New Yorkers with a national parkland close to home. Floyd Bennett Field's role in the life of Brooklyn is especially vital since it has less parkland than any other borough, even though it's the city's most populous.

A major political fight is garnering headlines over plans for an even bigger racetrack on Staten Island. While opponents there must face off against Nascar's might and a more convoluted political process, Floyd Bennett Field's future ultimately rests with the National Park Service.

I hope that the National Park Service rejects this dreadful plan immediately and decisively. We Brooklynites, especially those of us without country homes to which we can retreat, like Floyd Bennett Field the way it is — a mostly natural, wild and wide open place where we can breathe without choking on exhaust and mislaid plans.

Sharon Seitz is the author of "Big Apple Safari for Families: The Urban Park Rangers' Guide to Nature in New York City."


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