Parks: Enduring Benefits, Endless Challenges By Paul M. Bray
Frederic Law Olmsted’s matchless and inspired pleasure grounds beginning with Central Park in New York City have enriched urban life in cities like Albany, Boston, Rochester, Buffalo and San Francisco for more than a century. The Olmsted pleasure ground was envisioned before the automobile. Olmsted’s artistic landscape genius is born out by the fact that his design of urban natural settings relates as well to people today as it did to the public in the 19th century. Few realize that the simplicity and naturalness of the Olmsted design with its groves, lawns and water bodies is really highly complex and skillfully engineered. Intrusions in an Olmsted park landscape can easily destroy the qualities of natural scenery including the soothing visual impression enjoyed by passive park users.
Despite the public’s appreciation of parks, parks have constantly been threatened. Olmsted’s Seneca Park, like other parks in the state, have been threatened by public officials who attempt to discontinue parkland use for other inconsistent public uses like roadways or to introduce recreational or other facilities like a golf driving range into landscaped parks where the facility negatively impacts a valued landscape design. Regrettably, some treat parks as just so much space thereby overlooking the qualities of landscape design and the enduring human need for refreshment of grass, trees, water, and unconfined space.
There is no guaranteed statewide legal protection for New York State’s park legacy. Yet, legislators and judges have set up road blocks that more often than not have been the salvation of parkland.
The courts of the State have found a public trust in parkland that prohibits the alienation or discontinuance of parkland by a municipality without express approval by the State Legislature. Encroachments like the development of a Safety Institute that did not have a park related purpose or leasing of parkland for a golf driving range, for example, have been found by the courts to require legislative approval.
The State Environmental Quality Review Act or environmental impact statement requirement was enacted in 1975 to provide protection for significant environmental assets like parkland. This Act is primarily a reporting and disclosure law requiring public bodies to carefully look before they act when the action may have a significant impact on the environment. By requiring public bodies to consider alternatives that may include a no action alternative as part of the environmental review process as well as to specify mitigation measures in case the proposed action is to go forward, the Act seeks to affect the outcome in the direction of being protective of the environmental values.
National and state historic preservation laws offer another layer of protection for parkland like Olmsted parks that have achieved historic status. Olmsted’s Central Park in New York City has been designated a National Historic Landmark, the nation’s highest historic designation. Seneca Park, like many Olmsted parks, is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places Because of historic preservation protections, projects affecting listed or eligible parkland like the rebuilding of the Central Park zoo had to undertaken in a manner that maintains historic park identity. In the case of Central Park, the new zoo opened in 1988 had to be kept within the old zoo’s 5 acre foot print.
These laws are now being played out with regard to Rochester’s Seneca Park Zoo expansion plan that presents a classic challenge to one of Olmsted’s renowned parks. Like all municipal parkland it is subject to the public trust protection and if it encroaches on parkland as proposed in the Zoo Plan, it should require state legislative approval. While it can be argued that the Zoo is a compatible use in Seneca Park where a zoo has long existed, sizable expansion of the Zoo negatively affecting Olmsted’s design should be deemed to be contrary to the public trust. If the restoration of the zoo kept within its original foot print as was the case in Central Park, there would be no conflict.
If the environmental impact statement for the Zoo Plan is challenged in the courts, a court should set the bar high for a nationally renowned Olmsted park like Seneca Park when looking at Monroe County’s compliance with the environmental impact requirements for reviewing alternatives and mitigation.
Yet, the real protection for the product of Olmsted’s artistic genius that has benefited many generations of residents of Rochester comes from enlightened public officials that can learn from examples like the Central Park Zoo redevelopment where the Park design was protected at the same time humane animal care is provided. It is hard for me who has come to know Rochester, as it is the birthplace of my mother, to believe that the citizens of Rochester and Monroe County would allow the encroachment on Seneca Park, a great natural and national treasure.
Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. He is an Adjunct Professor in the planning program of the University at Albany and has lectured and written widely on subjects of environmental, parks and planning.
(This article was published in the Democratic and Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, NY on Friday, June 21, 2002.)