As former Chair of the Council’s Parks Committee, Melissa championed equal access to open space as a form of social justice to preserve and improve community life. This was especially important to her as representative of a district plagued by some of the City’s highest asthma rates. From challenging public space privatization, to investing in the modernization of parks and recreational centers, to protecting community gardens and enhancing pathways for bicyclists and walkers, Melissa has been at the forefront of creating a healthier, vibrant environment.
Open Space Capital Funding 2007-2016
Types of Projects Funded
Local Parks and Recreation
Melissa’s investments in her district’s parks include a $1.2 million allocation towards the reconstruction of White Park, located at 106th and 105th Streets near Lexington Avenue. In 2016, old playground equipment and worn seating were replaced with new basketball and handball courts, climbing rope walls, play bridges, and spray showers, transforming it into a more welcoming space for the families of East Harlem/El Barrio.
Thomas Jefferson Park
For the renovation of Thomas Jefferson Park and Recreational Facility on First Avenue, a project Melissa bookmarked $3.14 million for, the D8 team sought feedback directly from neighborhood residents. The community’s input led to a series of new policies and upgrades, including: a dog run maintained by local volunteers; a skate board park; and a dedicated public pool hours for senior citizens.
In 2011, area seniors had initially proposed special hours to accommodate older residents. Later that year, Melissa advocated for the facility to offer these dedicated swim hours as a part of the Age Improvement District initiative that she launched in partnership with the New York Academy of Medicine. The resulting program – which included a qualified swimming and water exercises instructor—proved so popular that the City Parks Department created similar programs the following summer at 13 other pool locations.
The dog run was also an outgrowth of coordinated neighborhood engagement. In 2012, Melissa launched a cleanliness campaign, “There is No Poop Fairy,” modeled after a similar cheeky effort led by the Colorado Animal Control Office. Focused on Jefferson Park, project aimed to keep parks and sidewalks clean and sanitary for residents. The D8 team enlisted volunteers armed with branded t-shirts, plastic bags, scoopers, and flyers to remind local residents to pick up after their dogs, since “poop would not magically take care of itself.” Jorge Bendersky, often billed as a “celebrity dog groomer,” joined the effort by providing instruction to residents on proper pet care, while underscoring that everyone is responsible for the cleanliness of the community.
Finally, the upcoming skate park grew out of an effort to offer more recreational options for teenagers in the neighborhood, with their direct input. In 2013, Melissa initiated the District 8 Youth Council, which then called for the park’s construction in the northeast section of Jefferson Park. Melissa dedicated $650,000 in funding for this initiative.
St. Mary’s Park
As the largest recreational space in the South Bronx, St. Mary’s Park is a crucial resource for local residents. However, with no major capital investment in two decades, the park was sorely in need of improvements. Melissa negotiated for $1.5 million in funding from the City, and later, an additional $30 million from Mayor Bill de Blasio as a result of her persistent advocacy. Melissa’s funding will help with Phase I reconstruction of St. Mary’s Park west playground, furnishing it with new equipment, safe surfacing, drinking fountains, landscaped areas, benches, and swings – a plan that was shaped by the feedback of Mott Haven residents.
Mill Brook Playground
Since 2007, Melissa has allocated a total of $1.25 million for the reconstruction of Mill Brook Playground. Among the planned upgrades: a new spray shower area, fitness unit, a synthetic turf play area, decorative pavements, a climbing structure, swings, other playground equipment, and landscaping.
District 8 is home to many community gardens, which are the direct result of decades of community stewardship. Due to increasing gentrification pressures and housing demands, these neighborhood gems were vulnerable to closure and re-purposing. Melissa worked with neighborhood residents and local leaders to advocate for preserving these valuable spaces, citing the years of dedication that many veteran residents had invested in these smaller gardens, as well as the social gathering space and quiet relief they offer in urban surroundings. In 2010, as a result of her advocacy, the Parks Department issued revised rules, including the stipulation that all active community gardens that met their license terms would remain as gardens, and receive subsequent license renewal. The Department also announced that when a garden becomes inactive, it would identify a successor garden group to return it to active status within nine months.
La Isla Garden
In 2016, Melissa allocated $12,000 in Parks Equity Initiative funding to La Isla Garden in the Highbridge section of District 8. This allocation provided a rainwater harvest system to improve water access to grow a variety of fresh produce. This fresh produce helps to feed residents in the surrounding community.
Randall’s Island Access
When the Bloomberg Administration expanded the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation as a public-private partnership, Melissa worked with community leaders and residents to voice their concern about private schools receiving favored access to the island’s public fields. She argued that the City’s deal left low-income young people without the same access as private school students, and pressed for transparency regarding the process.
This activism resulted in a major victory in 2009, when a court found that the City had circumvented its own public review process to broker a deal with private schools. Due to this public pressure, new terms and conditions were created for expanded access for public school students and increased accountability measuresfor the Foundation, and its partner Sportstime, to sustain meaningful public access to their facilities.
Melissa also funded a new pedestrian and bike route to connect the Bronx to Randall’s Island. Delayed for years, the Randall’s Island Connector was initially conceived as an easy alternative for walkers and bicyclists, instead of the maze of poorly-lit stairs, winding ramps, and narrow pedestrian bridges people were forced to use. Melissa continually pushed for the project to reach completion, and celebrated its debut in 2015, when the connector finally opened to the public. The connector now joins the Bronx’s Port Morris neighborhood to the Island via a clear and direct path that runs for a quarter of a mile.
East River Esplanade
In 2016, Melissa joined Council Member Ben Kallos and the New York City Parks Department to announce the East River Esplanade Project, which broke ground in July of 2017 for its first phase of work. Under Melissa’s leadership, the Council provided $3 million in funding towards the reconstruction of the Esplanade seawall. The renovations will include a new platform, topside improvements, and pile removal at 114th, 117th, and 124-125th Streets.
For communities north of 96th Street, this project represents a major step toward open space equity, providing the quality waterfront that many other Manhattan neighborhoods already enjoy. It also preserves the Esplanade as a bulwark to defend against flooding along the East River.
Along the Esplanade, years of deterioration and neglect of the 107th Street Pier in East Harlem/El Barrio were finally remedied through Melissa’s advocacy and funding commitment.
The 270-foot-long pier attracts locals looking to relax and fish—which is why residents and leaders who participated in the development of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan called for its restoration as a functional open space. With funding allocations from Melissa and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in fiscal year 2017, the City has initiated temporary improvements such as: the demolition of the pier’s pavilion and removal of debris; replacement of paving and railings; and fencing off the severely-damaged eastern portion of the pier.
These improvements will extend the usability of the pier while plans for permanent renovations are designed.