Ridgewood Reservoir with Pump House
by E. Woodward
Ridgewood Reservoir is an accidental wilderness tucked alongside the Jackie Robinson Parkway on the Brooklyn-Queens border. Built in 1858 to provide drinking water to Brooklyn, the reservoir (comprised of three basins) was abandoned in 1989. In the 20 years since, the 50 acres have reverted to wetlands, meadows, and forests, offering what one naturalist sees as a “unique opportunity to study the process of forest succession in an urban environment.”
One of the wildest places in all of New York City, it is home to a broad diversity of plants (over 180 species), insects, reptiles, and animal including 148 species of birds, according to the latest count on eBird, eight of which are on the National Audubon Watch List of species in decline or at risk.
In recent years, Ridgewood Reservoir has also become the site of considerable contention. In PlaNYC 2030, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation offered up a plan to “renovate” the reservoir that would fill in the largest basin (20 acres) to make way for athletic fields and facilities. Local Community Boards in Brooklyn and in Queens, along with other groups, protested. “We’re on record as wanting to keep the reservoir basins and the reservoir as natural habitat,” said Gary Giordano, district manager of the Queens Community Board. “Rather than filling in Ridgewood Reservoir for ball fields, the city could reconstruct and reconfigure Highland Park to accommodate sports needs.” Highland Park, which is adjacent to Ridgewood Reservoir, has a half dozen poorly kept ball fields that many teams don’t use because of the poor condition. The non-profit Riverkeeper also came out against the plan: “Ridgewood Reservoir absorbs storm water,” the group wrote. “Replacing woodlands with recreational fields will exacerbate flooding and the urban heat island effect, and destroy an important habitat for many bird and plant species…. Past efforts to fill in wetlands and turn them into ball fields, such as Strack Pond in Queens, have failed.”
by M. Feller
After taking a tour of the reservoir, New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. stepped in, requiring the Parks Department to offer three distinct plans. Once those plans have been completed by a design consultant and reviewed by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, they will be presented to Community Boards in Brooklyn and Queens. Due to the economy, the original budget of $50 million has been scaled back by about half.
Rob Jett, conservation chair of the Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance, hopes this will give his group time to garner more support to protect the wild nature of the basins. “The wetlands are very important,” he stressed, citing an evaluation by the American Littoral Society. The remaining funds, community leaders suggest, could be used to convert an old pump house into a nature center where school classes could meet. Some would like to see part of the park made into a protected reserve, like the Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park. Meanwhile, the first phase is proceeding apace: budgeted at $7.7 million, it includes lighting, the restoration of running and bike paths to make them ADA-accessible, and the replacement of a perimeter fence.