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Touring the Dump - Welcome to Fresh Kills

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A New Scenic Destination: That's Right, It's Fresh Kills
8 April 2006
The New York Times

Forget the liquid ooze from New York City's garbage, slowly seeping downward, five years after the last load of trash arrived at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Don't mind the methane gas, which is slowly percolating underground and which the city hopes to harness someday to create electricity, and revenue.

The city's Department of Parks and Recreation will offer monthly bus tours, starting at the end of this month, as part of the effort to transform Fresh Kills, once the world's largest landfill, into a vast park with picnic grounds, athletic fields and a giant earthen monument to the Sept. 11 victims.

''This is a great way for New Yorkers to understand the spectacular potential of Fresh Kills to become the great park of the 21st century,'' the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, said yesterday. ''Being on top of any of the mounds gives you a view unparalleled anywhere in New York City. You have the feeling of being on an alpine meadow.''

Those mounds, of course, were formed by tons of trash that accumulated over 53 years. The plan to transform the once-smelly landfill into a park took a major step forward this week, with the completion of a draft master plan that will guide construction on the 2,315-acre site.

The plan, released on Thursday by the Department of City Planning, envisions five park areas to be built over 30 years: a 100-acre core, to be called the Confluence; a small North Park for the residents of the Travis neighborhood; a South Park with varied terrain for mountain biking, soccer and horseback riding; an East Park with a golf course, a freshwater marsh and large art installations; and a West Park with long-distance trails for running and even skiing, as well as the 9/11 monument.

To get there, the planners must first erase the old image of Fresh Kills.

''No one could really see Fresh Kills when it was a landfill,'' said James Corner, a British landscape architect and urban planner who is the chief designer of the new park. ''All they saw was the trash trucks and the sea gulls, and they smelled the stench. If you could get visitors now and put them in a car or bus to go for a drive around, they're totally blown away and surprised by their worst expectations being supplanted by something that's actually pretty scenic and beautiful.''

Amanda M. Burden, the director of city planning, who oversaw the plan, said the past few tours have helped to stimulate public interest in the park. ''The rolling wetlands, the hills and the views are just breathtaking,'' she said. ''It is one of the most glorious sights, already, in the entire city, and it is totally unique.''

Ms. Burden said that Fresh Kills and the High Line, a 1.5-mile defunct elevated railway on the West Side of Manhattan that is also being turned into a park, were ''the major legacy projects of the Bloomberg administration.''

The master plan is the most detailed version of a proposal first put forward in 1996, when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced the closing of the landfill, the city's major repository of residential solid waste since 1948.

The landfill received its last load of trash in March 2001, but the closing of the site, which is still controlled by the Sanitation Department, was delayed for a year because it was kept open to accommodate the debris from the Sept. 11 attack. Two earthworks, the length and width of the World Trade Center towers, are planned for the southwestern part of the site.

Although Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has committed $100 million in city money to the project, only a small part of the park will be open by the time he leaves office at the end of 2009. Three soccer fields, known as the Owl Hollow and covering 35 acres, are to be completed by 2007, at a cost of $6.5 million.

In a nod to the car-reliant culture of Staten Island, the plan then calls for seven miles of park drives, connecting Richmond Avenue to the busy West Shore Expressway, to be mostly completed by 2009.

The former landfill occupies 45 percent of the nearly four square miles of the park area. The rest is made up of wetlands, marshes, creeks, tidal flats, open meadows and woodland.

The project is enormously complex from an environmental standpoint because of the decades it takes for trash to decompose. Of the six giant mounds of trash at Fresh Kills, three have been covered with a thick, impermeable cap, and the remaining three are to be fully capped between 2008 and 2011.

The next step in the park's development is an environmental impact statement, to be completed by the summer of 2007. After a land-use review, the master plan will be finished and construction will start in 2009.

Not everyone is a fan of the park. Benjamin Miller, a former Sanitation Department official, has long criticized Mr. Giuliani's decision to close Fresh Kills without an alternative landfill or incineration plan to replace it. The city pays at least $300 million a year more than it did when Fresh Kills was open, as a result of having to pay trucking companies to haul garbage out of state, he said.

''I believe it is the most irresponsible decision a mayor of New York City has ever made, in terms of the long-term fiscal and environmental impacts,'' Mr. Miller said.
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