By Victoria Merlino
Councilmember Peter Koo took over as chair of the Council’s Committee on Parks and Recreation on June 13, replacing Councilmember Barry Grodenchik, who admitted to sexually harassing a staff member for more than a year.
Koo’s district covers 350 acres of parkland, including Kissena Park, across Flushing, Murray Hill and Queensboro Hill.
In an interview with the Eagle, Koo said he did not have a personal opinion on Grodenchik’s removal because he wasn’t part of the ethics committee that disciplined him.
Koo said Grodenchik may have figured that if he gave up the chairmanship, he would not face additional consequences.
“‘I don’t want to fight, I will step down from my chairmanship and the council will leave me alone,’” Koo said, describing his thinking on Grodenchik’s resignation.
He takes over the position at a time when parks across the city — and Queens, in particular — are in desperate need of upgrades and upkeep. In fact, the average Queens park has not had a major upgrade since the first George Bush was president.
A 2018 report by the Center for the Urban Future details the sorry state of Queens’ 356 parks, which attract millions of visitors despite the aging infrastructure and, at times, unsafe conditions.
“Problems exacerbated by the age of the parks system are compounded by deferred maintenance and a lack of infrastructure upgrades, which means that aging parks often go decades without significant investment in both aboveground and below-grade infrastructure,” the report states.
As Parks chair, Koo said he wants to prioritize safety and address homelessness in city parks.
“When you go to parks, you got to feel safe. And actually safe,” Koo said. “Because lately, you know, too many homeless people roaming around, sometimes they stay in the parks.”
He also said he wants to ensure parkland preservation, maintenance and equitable distribution of funding across the five boroughs.
He specifically said he did not want the LaGuardia AirTrain to take up too much parkland for the project. Several Queens residents have opposed the AirTrain project, which would connect LaGuardia Airport to midtown Manhattan, because it would take over a piece of the Flushing Bay Promenade, according to the Queens Chronicle.
Koo underscored the benefits parks offer city residents who can feel isolated from nature.
“In Flushing, most people live in apartments, right? Many, many, live in overcrowded apartments, so parks are a way for them to go [relieve] their tension,” he said.
Parks also have an array of programming, he said, making them good places for kids to learn “to see how honey is made, see the bees [and] see butterflies,” for example.
City parks received a significant increase in the 2020 budget, which Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council agreed to on June 14.
The extra money will fund 150 new gardeners and maintenance workers, 50 new park rangers, $8 million for community gardens.
Queens has more parks than any other borough except for the Bronx, which has 411. Queens parks have an average age of 72, according to the Center for an Urban Future report.
By NYC public infrastructure standards, Queens’ parks are middle-aged. Manhattan parks average 86 years old, while Staten Island parks average 51 years old. Brooklyn parks are 74 and the Bronx, 73.