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Breaking ground for a sliver of a riverside park

Work crews get ready to break ground at the new Starlight Park. Photo: David Alexander

Work crews get ready to break ground at the new Starlight Park in the Bronx. Photo: David Alexander

Local Bronx politicians and community groups broke ground Thursday in a $17 million project to restore Starlight Park, a derelict sliver of land running between the Bronx River and the Sheridan Expressway.

The two-year restoration of the park, over a decade in the works, is expected to include the building of new playgrounds, a soccer field, a basketball court and paths for walking and cycling.

“This is election year and there are many candidates saying government doesn’t work,” said New York State Assemblyman, Michael Benjamin. “Well, tell them about this place.”

Starlight Park’s restoration was set in motion by a coalition of Bronx-based non-profit groups and local and state agencies as a part of a larger scheme to redevelop neglected land along the Bronx River.

“This is the end or maybe the beginning of a long journey to have a park that will be better used by young people,” said David Shuffler, director of the Youth Ministries for Peace Justice, a Bronx-based group that spearheaded the restoration of the park.

The park project is one of the final installments in the Greenway plan, a 20-mile long green corridor along the Bronx River that will connect the East River to Westchester County by bike paths.

Community leaders believe that the park will help to promote a more active lifestyle for Bronx residents.

“This park will encourage green forms of transportation and encourage people to walk and cycle,” said U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley.

The Bronx Greenway initiative was launched in 2006 by the New York Economic Development Corp. in collaboration with the Bronx River Alliance, a non-profit group pushing for the rejuvenation of the river.

Miles of shoreline have since been converted into parkland through the Greenway scheme, including the transformation of a nearby concrete processing plant into green space, completed in September 2009.

The Bronx’s Starlight Park has been many things over the centuries, including an amusement park, an oil gasification plant, and finally a combination of auto body shop, impound lot and dilapidated playfield.

The building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the 1960s sliced through the park, transforming it into a sliver of land boxed in by three major thoroughfares.

Though local community groups had been calling for the restoration of the park for years, the city only began to plan and raise money for the project in 1999.

In 2004, just after beginning the initial excavation, work crews struck rusted remnants of a Con Edison gas plant that had formerly occupied the site.

Soil testing found high levels of contaminants, including benzene and other toxins, which put the project on hold until the site could be cleaned up.

Though Con Edison has subsequently decontaminated the site, the Bronx River area still faces many challenges.

Decontamination efforts of Starlight Park found no less than 22 cars lodged in the riverbed close by.

The river itself is also contaminated by raw sewage, which overflows into it on rainy days.

Yet, despite the persistent environmental problems surrounding the river, officials in charge of the restoration of Starlight Park have worked to maintain high standards regarding environmental sustainability, even earning an Evergreen award, the highest certification under the New York Transport Department’s criteria for environmental friendliness.

The park’s new environmental credentials will include rainwater retention basins, the use of recycled materials in park construction and the planting of nearly two acres of wildflowers.

“That’s what this is all about: bringing green back to the Bronx and making the Bronx a greener place,” said Crowley.

Local officials also praised the project for creating approximately 50 new jobs during the first phase of construction.

Yet, some at the groundbreaking had more lighthearted considerations in mind when discussing the new park’s benefits to the community.

“Do you know how many first kisses will happen here?” asked State Assemblyman, Marcos Crespo.

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