Money doesn't grow on trees

Money doesn't grow on trees, but... Following complaints by some, city likely to hire parks consultant

02/24/2008 Hoboken Reporter
Parks consultant Cynthia Nikitin offers the council and public some suggestions on how to better utilize current park space in town. 
Mayor David Roberts is strongly considering giving a contract to a parks consultant to work on the city's existing and future parks.

Wednesday night's City Council meeting began with a presentation from Cynthia Nikitin, vice president of a non-profit organization called Project for Public Spaces (PPS) in New York City. The group assists municipalities in creating and sustaining public places.

At the meeting, Nikitin delivered a presentation on ideas and opportunities for Hoboken's existing and future parks.

This came on the heels of activists lobbying for more input into changes in the city's existing parks, and demanding more open space in a city that is burgeoning with development.

Nikitin offered a few suggestions to further involve the public in the city's parks, including inviting residents on a walk through the city's parks. A later step would be the creation of a conceptual diagram of possibilities for future parks.

Mayor David Roberts said Friday that he wants to hire Nikitin as a consultant. He said the proposed contract would cost less than $25,000.

Not a budget cut
At a time when the council is looking to make as many budgetary cuts as possible, with a proposed city budget that is seven months overdue, some in the public questioned the need for the city to hire an outside consultant for something the city could do itself.

"Why would we want to pay this kind of money, especially when we the citizens can work it out ourselves without spending any money," said open space advocate Cheryl Fallick. "I hear things about targeting audiences, managing parks, and programming parks and branding. Parks aren't a commercial; they're a place for people. We don't need things like that."

Similarly, open space advocate Dan Tumpson said, "I'm a little bit concerned that that particular consultant has a particular bias toward covering up things and putting a big flashy surface [on] green space, and all the quiet contemplative space [becomes] history."

Tumpson here was referring particularly to Church Square Park, where parents and activists have recently complained about changes they didn't like. Part of the park's green space has been covered up with playgrounds for children and Astroturf.

Support and a defense

Nikitin did have support from some open-space advocates. Fourth Ward Councilwoman Dawn Zimmer, who recently won her election bid in large part because of her strong advocacy for more parks in Hoboken, said, "I think the Project for Open Spaces can act as a neutral voice and help us involve the entire community in our decision-making process."

Similarly, 5th Ward Councilman Peter Cunningham felt Nikitin would be an asset to any future park development in Hoboken. "I think we need a third party, someone who is independent, to help us," said Cunningham.

In response to the reaction by some members of the public who expressed doubt about Nikitin's services being worth thousands of dollars, Cunningham said, "I think it was hard for her to convey the specifics at the meeting, and I think its short-sighted for us to cut her off at the knees without seeing what specifically she can do."

According to Cunningham, Nikitin was recommended by the city's former Director of Environmental Services Cassandra Wilday, who held the title from 2001 through 2004.

In response to some of the questions raised by residents, Nikitin said, "Being able to get people to work together on larger issues and resolve problems is something we're very good at. With over 32 years of experience facilitating community workshops and acting as a neutral party, I think there's a lot we can offer."

When asked if the city was capable of doing everything PPS was offering, only at no charge to the taxpayers, Nikitin quipped that the process was not "rocket science," yet she believed a municipality would benefit from a "neutral voice with experience."

In a Friday morning conversation with Mayor David Roberts, he confirmed that the city would be seeking Nikitin's assistance in the future, after saying that he was approached by two council members and other residents who also "believed the city can utilize her expertise."

Roberts conceded that a major factor in his decision was the current conflict between two apparently warring resident factions surrounding the trees planted at Church Square Park and the asphalt laid down by the city last year. Parents have complained that new trees planted in the park are keeping children from playing ball there, while activists want the trees to stay.


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