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Promised Bronx park overhaul a year late and counting

Williamsbridge Oval improvements were promised with construction of water filtration plant in nearby Van Cortlandt Park

Basketball court, still missing hoops

Basketball courts at Williamsbridge Oval Park lack hoops and need a paving do-over. Photo: Nathaniel Herz

For 17-year-old Muhibur Rahman, there’s a lot to like about Williamsbridge Oval Park in the Norwood neighborhood of the Bronx.

It has plenty of space for soccer, and Rahman and his friends gather for matches every Saturday and Sunday on the park’s bright green turf field.

Rahman does, however, have one complaint, evidenced by a pair of players darting off towards the woods at the north end of the Oval: Despite a series of upgrades in the past few years, the park is still without bathrooms. When nature calls, he and his teammates are forced to either beeline for the trees or for their homes nearby.

“That’s a big problem for us,” he said.

The lack of lavatories is only the latest in a series of delays and glitches plaguing the Oval’s renovations.

Area residents, local activists and elected officials are getting impatient with what they say is the slow pace of renovations at the Oval, which were promised in 2004 as part of a political deal that paved the way for the construction of a massive water filtration plant in nearby Van Cortlandt Park. When it comes to the Bronx, they argue, Parks Department projects are not getting the same level of attention as those elsewhere in the city.

“A lot of people are frustrated,” said Fernando Tirado, the local community board’s district manager.

Residents recently learned that the Parks Department had pulled a contractor off a plumbing job at the park’s recreation center due to slow progress, delaying completion of work on the building that houses the Oval’s bathrooms.

The renovations to the recreation center—originally scheduled for completion by last summer—will not be complete until next spring, according to Zachary Feder, a city Parks Department spokesperson.

The rec center rehab is one of several improvements laid out in the 2004 political deal, which promised $200 million in upgrades to parks throughout the Bronx. Some $13.5 million went to the Oval, a converted reservoir that sprawls over 20 acres in Norwood.

The park is a gathering place for the neighborhood’s diverse ethnic groups; last weekend, Rahman’s squad of Bangladeshi soccer players squared off against a team of Jamaicans. Other visitors include Dominican baseball players; South Americans, who prefer volleyball; Albanian mothers; and a group of Filipinos who practice Tai Chi, according to Lorita Watson, a member of the Friends of the Williamsbridge Oval, a local citizens’ group.

Thus far, the political dollars have gone toward construction of the artificial turf field and a running track, which were finished in 2008. The next phase of work included a new playground and renovations to a pair of basketball courts.

While the Parks Department held a ribbon-cutting for the playground a few weeks ago, its completion was delayed due to the harsh winter last year. And though the basketball courts look ready, they’re still without hoops. A coating recently applied to the courts’ surfaces didn’t pass muster at a final inspection, Feder said, and they have remained closed while a contractor waits for a stretch of good weather so that it can try again.

Residents appreciate the improvements, but the extra time spent completing the rec center work will have an impact, Watson said.

Visitors are currently deprived of the use of the building’s amenities, which include a computer lab, an area for senior citizens, and a fitness room—as well as the bathrooms.

The Parks Department has placed portable toilets in the Oval in the past, but to keep them there through the winter “just wouldn’t make sense,” Feder said.

The bathrooms, though, aren’t the only thing on residents’ minds. Watson said that the numerous delays at the Oval were a signal that the Parks Department’s standards for the Bronx were not as high as they are for other boroughs—a sentiment echoed by Jeffrey Dinowitz, the local state assemblyman.

In an interview in his Kingsbridge office, he criticized the Parks Department for the intermittent progress on the work at the Oval and at other Bronx projects paid for with the $200 million from the filtration plant. Some $48 million of that total remains uncommitted, though language in the 2004 political deal stipulated that all the money be made available within five years.

“When it comes to Manhattan, things get done,” Dinowitz said. “When it comes to the Bronx, it just doesn’t seem to be as high on the priority list.”

Unfinished recreation center

Williamsbridge Oval's rec center - including bathrooms - remains unfinished in the wake of contractor delays. Photo: Nathaniel Herz

Indeed, it’s not a secret that projects in the Bronx get less attention from the Parks Department, according to Geoffrey Croft, president of the citywide activist group Park Advocates.

As another example, Croft cited delays to a separate project near Yankee Stadium, where the Parks Department was supposed to build three public baseball fields to offset the loss of others displaced by the new stadium. The public fields were originally scheduled for completion in late 2010; after a delayed groundbreaking, they opened for a single day last month and will not be reopened until next spring, TV station NY 1 reported recently.

“There’s no doubt that the outer boroughs get the short shrift,” Croft said. “I think the Bronx, in particular—there’s just not a lot of oversight.”

That assertion was contested by Feder, though, who said that while some individual projects may run into problems in the Bronx, delays can happen in all boroughs.

“Just based on the sites themselves and the geography there, sometimes there are complications,” he said. “But we certainly aim to complete all projects on schedule and on budget.”

As for the allocation of the $200 million, he said all of the Bronx projects were either in construction or being bid.

“We don’t build parks overnight,” Feder said.

Meanwhile, Norwood residents are caught in the fray. Last week, Cristobal Morales, 75, said that he was grateful for the Parks Department’s work to keep the Oval clean, and added that its conditions had improved in the past few years.

But from a seat at a picnic table adjacent to the unfinished basketball courts, he said he was upset to see the construction taking so long.

“I see kids coming around with the ball. They look—they want to play basketball,” he said. “It’s a shame.”