New Times Article 08-2008

The article below appeared in the Syracuse New Times in August 2008.

(Reproduced courtesy of the New Times)

While discussing a location for a photograph of himself and Lee Gechas, Mike Behnke mentioned to staff photographer Michael Davis the World War II monument recently uncovered at Burnet Park. Huh? What World War II monument? “Exactly,” would be Behnke’s response.

And that is why the transplanted New Yorker has become so passionate about the state of Syracuse’s parks that he’s urging the formation of a parks conservancy. The idea for a city-wide coalition of park associations, with nonprofit status and resultant fund-raising ability, came out of work the Sunnycrest Park Association has achieved for the Eastwood greenspace.

“We began to realize that no matter what we do, who’s going to do it when we’re gone? Who’s going to carry on?” Behnke says. “By observing all the groups that are working in all the different parks in the city you see a lot of stuff that can’t be taken care of by the Parks Department, because there’s no funding and it’s not on their priorities list.”

Treasure chests: City parks are not as appreciated by city residents as they could be. Among their little-known assets are a pond at Thornden Park (top), just east of the Syracuse University campus, and a recently unearthed World War II monument in Burnet Park, dedicated to those nearby Skunk City residents who died during the conflagration. Standing in front of the memorial are Mike Behnke (front) and Lee Gechas, co-chairs of a burgeoning parks conservancy.

That is not to say that the Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Services, headed by Commissioner Pat Driscoll, is ineffective, Behnke stresses. “He just doesn’t have the money. You can be the best commissioner in the world but if you don’t have the funds or the people—our group, we’re bringing them in. Pat’s been the best, but what happens if you get the worst in next? Where do you go then?

“Every eight years you get a different commissioner,” he continues. “We want to see somebody at the helm of a conservancy that knows what the group is trying to do, and I think a conservancy is going to bring the awareness of the public, that they can help in the parks, and to me that’s all important.”

And while Driscoll, whose job is up in the air after his cousin Matt Driscoll is term-limited out of the mayor’s office in 2009, supports the effort in principle, he urges caution. “I think it’s a neat concept,” he says, “but how you put it into motion remains to be seen. Obviously we have to address issues as far as funding goes, as operations go. What does this entail? Is it community parks, does it include greenspaces and natural areas? A lot of this stuff has to be flushed out.”

Still, lesser groups than a coalition of “parkologists,” as Behnke calls his colleagues, have caught the attention of City Hall. It’s commendable that the year-old conservancy is seriously studying how parks can attract residents into the city, how they can enhance the, now-cliched, quality of life, how they make neighborhoods more than a collection of domiciles. “One reason I live in Syracuse is the parks; I’m a parkologist,” Behnke says. “I think you guys {Syracusans} have riches beyond your means that are sitting right outside your door, but if it’s all overgrown, you can’t take advantage of it.” Sorta like that World War II monument.

In addition to money, the nascent parks conservancy needs warm bodies. Behnke invites interested members of the public to attend the monthly meetings. The next one is slated for Thursday, Sept. 4, 7 p.m. at the golf house at Sunnycrest Park, accessible by Caleb Avenue and Robinson Street. But he needs City Hall as well. “We want the city on board 100 percent,” Behnke adds. “Pat Driscoll is becoming more and more convinced because he sees the momentum taking off, and it just makes sense. Its time has come.”

Once Around the Parks

Park conservancies are nothing new; enter a search on Google and dozens of them pop up. The Central Park Conservancy was founded in 1980 and manages the Manhattan oasis under a contract with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. On the other side of the state, the Buffalo Olmstead Parks Conservancy became, in 2004, the first not-for-profit organization in the nation to manage a park system.

Looking to the Central Park group as its model, Behnke and company requested that conservancy’s management and overview information, and the agreements and contracts between it and New York City; the purpose was information gathering. “The reason we chose Central Park is because in their conservancy the parks commissioner has final say,” Behnke says. As for Buffalo’s conservancy, it performs maintenance on 75 percent of that city’s parks, including the spectacular, Frederick Law Olmstead-designed Delaware Park. (In fact, Olmstead designed both parks.) they raise funds by charging for special events.

“They charge fees for people to use the parks,” explains Lee Gechas, who is co-chairing the conservancy initiative with Behnke. “Not that they have a turnstile at the entrance if you want to take a walk, but weddings, photo shoots, commercial activity—there’s a fee for those. They raise money and they are able to use that money for part of their operating expenses. Mike likes the Central Park model. They’re the Babe Ruth of parks conservancies. They have a zone system for maintaining parks, in which one gardener, for example, is responsible for a certain amount of acres, and he takes care of everything in that zone.”

Decidedly, Syracuse could use some help in the funding department. For 2008-2009, the department will work with a budget of nearly $7.6 million, up about 6 percent from the previous year, according to Bob Sprague, director of Management and Budget for the city. By contrast, Rochester, with 3,500 acres of land, has a proposed 2008-2009 budget of $6.87 million. “What parks department doesn’t wish it had more money?” Driscoll asks rhetorically. “But we have to be more creative with what we do have. I see this conservancy idea as a way to help secure much-needed funding sources to maintain our parks.”

The sun shines on the statue of German poets Goethe and Schiller in the North Side’s Schiller Park.

Gechas is also involved in Canopy, a grass-roots coalition of Syracuse parks associations that advocates for the city’s greenspaces. But Behnke hastily points out that the conservancy is not Canopy. “Canopy is involved, but all park associations are involved, and TNT groups,” he says, referring to Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today. “And we’re not going to give the responsibility to one group because there’s really not a qualified group in the city yet. That’s why we’re forming this.”

One of the reasons Gechas formed Canopy was the lack of communication among the disparate park associations throughout the city. “I had a project for Baltimore Woods in which I was to go around to city parks and other greenspaces and figure out which of them would be good places for nature study and which would be the best places to connect with schools to have programs in the parks,” he says. “Well, who would be the best people to talk to? Park associations. I found there were a lot but they didn’t know each other and didn’t know each other existed.

“Under the auspices of the Sunnycrest Park Association, Mike was brought together with the other associations at a Canopy meeting, and he decided that maybe we need to take things a step further, and so the conservancy was born. I got involved because I also believe that Syracuse has wonderful parks and greenspaces and that we need to make sure they’re preserved and improved for future generations, and that the community has more say in how they’re used and developed.”

The group decided to get Syracuse University involved because the Connective Corridor touches on a number of the city’s parks. They’ve also approached activists involved with Onondaga Creek and those who organize community gardens. “Onondaga Creek is not technically a park,” Gechas notes, “but some of the land around it is public property. It’s a wonderful resource, a green and blue space, if you will, for recreation, community building and nature education.”

Pete Kavanagh, standing inside the Mariani Peace Garden at Sunnycrest Park, is helping with the conservancy through his facilitator position for the Eastwood TNT group.

As the director of Community Engagement and Economic Development at SU, Eric Persons sees the conservancy idea as a way to further SU’s reach into the community. “We’ve been looking at alternative means of maintaining many of the improvements we’ve been working on, whether with the city, the Metropolitan Development Association or the Chamber of Commerce,” Persons explains. “Given the harsh realities of public funding streams, we need to look at other approaches. New York City has been very successful with the Central Park Conservancy, and getting to know Mike and the work that they’ve been doing, we’re working with them to try to coordinate efforts.

But, much like Driscoll, SU is proceeding slowly. “From our perspective, this is still in the exploratory stage right now,” adds Persons, who has begun attending the conservancy’s monthly meetings. “We need to look at how to set it up, how it’s managed, how other cities are doing it well and what working with them will entail. We could help, for example, by providing intellectual resources. One funding source that might be available is the ‘Enitiative,’ which allows for money to help support entrepreneurial activities, the community working with an academic entity. I sent Mike to the administrator of the program to see if there is an appropriate entity on campus for such a partnership.”
Living Laboratories

The educational component of a park conservancy also appeals to Behnke, and he would like to see the Syracuse City School District using city parks for nature education. “You drive through Lincoln Park, if you can, and you see a park that is doing nothing and it could be a laboratory for our kids. We want to see the school district in the parks so much that they’ve got to contribute with nature walks, nature trails. Nowadays not everybody hits a baseball or throws a football. Why not march the kids through the parks and teach them about the outdoors, the environment? That’s where I think a conservancy plays big.”

Eye candy: More spectacular sites found in Syracuse city parks include this handsome structure along Hiawatha Lake at Upper Onondaga Park, in the Strathmore neighborhood.
Pete Kavanagh would know about educational components. For 11 years he worked as the principal at Henninger High School, which abuts Sunnycrest Park. In his retirement, he has volunteered as a facilitator for the TNT, representing Eastwood, known as Sector 6. “It is the only formal, citizen organization that communicates directly with city government,” he says. “It is a convening mechanism for residents. I helped pilot Sector 6’s five-year plan, and part of that has been the Sunnycrest Parks Association, and now the conservancy plan.”
Like Gechas and Behnke, Kavanagh saw a funding need alongside necessary maintenance work for city parks. Several fund-raising ideas have been discussed, including a green stamps program—purchase so many and a tree gets planted in your name—and “friends of” organizations, much like those assisting Onondaga County Parks and the Onondaga County Public Library. “The Central Park Conservancy raises $25 million annually,” Kavanagh says. “We are looking at funding sources like the Community Foundation.”
Adds Behnke, “We brought in TNT because we realized that TNT is a federal initiative and by getting that in Sector 6’s five-year plan gives us a chance to quantify things, that the city would have to listen to us because it’s in our five-year plan. It shows that the public is participating in the process. A conservancy gives us, the public, a say in what’s going on in our parks. It helps us with the funding when the city says they don’t have the money, or it’s going here, and we see the infrastructure done by the guys from the WPA who worked for a loaf of bread a day going down the tubes.

“The commissioner was concerned with if we can get this out. We want to cast a net because we want like minds attracted to the conservancy, and when it’s formed we want qualified people to be on its board. To me, that’s important.”

The Sunnycrest Park Association has enjoyed a decent amount of success, and media attention, that other city park groups have not. Its initiatives include a Mariani Peace Garden, cross-country skiing trails, birdwatching hikes, weekly cleanups and an Earth Day blitz. With the SPA’s help, five other city parks have been incorporated with the state and now have their own official association—Sheridan, Loguen, Schiller, Meacham/Valley and Ormond-Spencer, a small park on East Fayette Street near the shuttered Kennedy Apartments.

“No. 7 will be Skiddy and No. 8 will be Burnet Park,” Behnke says. “By doing this, we try to empower the people in the neighborhoods to do things. There’s so much in these parks that people don’t see.” Like World War II monuments. “We gave them all bylaws and told them what to do. We’re not just out there doing events. We’re advocating to these parks.”

Frederick Law Olmstead left his mark on Buffalo and New York City with breath-taking parks he designed more than 100 years ago. While Syracuse can’t boast a Delaware or Central Park, we can still be rightly proud of Elmwood, Thornden, Sunnycrest and the smattering of smaller parks and greenspaces that dot the city like so many pearls in a double-strand necklace. Stories of crimes committed in Central Park are legendary in New York City, even though they don’t seem to be as common as in the 1980s. Behnke believes the efforts the Central Park Conservancy took to rein in criminal activity could work in some of our sketchier city parks.

And here’s a thought—while Central Park can now attract the likes of Simon and Garfunkel and the Dave Matthews Band to entertain throngs, why not try to bring musical acts to the Thornden Park Amphitheater? Shakespeare in the Park has shown the great promise this mostly unknown venue has. Let’s see what a jazz festival could do for the park.

“We want to make the parks a reason for people to want to live in the city,” Behnke explains. “New York politicians tied the revitalization of New York City to the revitalization of Central Park, and I think for our city to turn around we need to invest in our parks. What did they do in Central Park? They put a police station in the park; maybe that’s what we need instead of having that stupid trailer up on James Street, doing nothing. Maybe he should be coming out of the golf house at Sunnycrest as his command post.”

Even more controversial, Behnke would welcome cameras in some of the larger parks that seem to attract a certain element—Thornden, Sunnycrest, Elmcrest, Lincoln and Schiller. “We want to see cameras in our parks,” he continues. “If you’re going to kill me, at least you’ll be on camera. Something’s got to be done to make people feel that our parks are completely safe.”

Until safety is guaranteed, a parks conservancy can at least ensure that city parks are spiffed up and used to their fullest potential. With the monthly meetings attracting 15 to 20 people, you know some momentum is starting to build. It’s vital that both sides—the advocates and the city—don’t get bogged down in Syracuse-style quicksand and become so entrenched that nothing happens. Hey, there’s a first time for everything!

“This is really exciting to me because there are a lot of people who are beginning to come onboard with this project,” Gechas says, “and I think this will be a great way to augment and help out the Parks Department to be able to take care of a resource that Syracuse should be very proud of.”

If you are interested in learning more about the parks conservancy initiative, call Behnke at 347-7634 or visit www.sunnycrestparkassociation.com. “We’ve got a pretty diverse group,” Behnke says, “and Pat doesn’t want us to get ahead of ourselves. He’s onboard with the mission statement. I got involved with Sunnycrest Park 12 years ago when I said I’d take care of two trees in my back yard. And now look what I’m doing.”

A stairway, built in the 1930s in Lincoln Park, along the western end of Robinson Street, across Teall Avenue from Sunnycrest Park.