One early-March afternoon in 2007, Rob Jett climbed through a hole in a chain-link fence and thought he had entered a lost world.
He and two fellow bird-watchers rappelled into a dense swamp forest of birch and sweetgum, mosses and lichens. They were standing in ankle-deep water in the west basin of the 160-year-old Ridgewood Reservoir, the last vestige of Brooklyn’s old waterworks, smack on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Inside this wilderness, the sounds of the city faded away above the reservoir’s stone levees.
“We were like, ‘Holy shit,’ ” Jett told the Voice.
Jett, 61, had never seen a place like it, even though he had grown up only two miles away and for years had been writing about bird-watching throughout the city.
The reservoir was once important to the growth of Brooklyn as it became one of the largest cities in the country. Steam engines pumped the water into the three reservoir basins and then gravity carried it downhill as it traveled under city streets, into people’s homes.
But the reservoir was drained and abandoned in 1989, and within a single generation nature had reclaimed the basins and transformed them into a swamp-forest mix unlike any in the city.
Jett and his companions — married couple Steve Nanz and Heidi Steiner — crawled underneath vines straddling the path between the west and central basins.
They saw signs of paintball matches and tire tracks from dirt bikes and ATVs. All the lampposts were smashed. They daydreamed about the possibilities for the fifty-acre site: boardwalks through two of the basins and a nature center inside one of the two derelict redbrick gatehouses.
Their ideas conjured something similar to the High Line project, which was then being designed: a piece of obsolete urban infrastructure integrated with nature.
Until Wednesday, June 21, the city had never held the same view as the bird-watchers. Originally, the parks department, which acquired the reservoir from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2004, presented $50 million plans that would have bulldozed it for athletic fields. The reservoir remains standing because of a small group of naturalists, preservationists, and community activists who rallied to defend it as a nature preserve and historic jewel.
At the community meeting in Glendale last Wednesday, Queens parks commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski confirmed that Parks would no longer push for active recreation at the reservoir. The roughly sixty attendees offered proposals for the site that were similar to those first imaginings — limited trails inside the outer basins, a nature center, scenic overlooks, removal of invasive flora. Parks’ budget is $9 million.
To the reservoir’s supporters, the timing was still worrisome: the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) still hasn’t labeled the reservoir a wetlands. By law, such a designation would forever protect it from development. So, too, would landmark status. In March, the nonprofit NYC H2O, applied for its inclusion on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
At the meeting, Owen Wells, Parks’ director of environmental review, presented a plan for labeling the site a Critical Environmental Area — a nonregulatory policy statement without the muscle of the state wetlands label.
Nanz pointed out that a map of the reservoir did not include the L-shaped west basin, which is as large as the other two together and has long been a focus of their efforts, as part of the wetlands. Parks once wanted to build sports fields over it, and an NYSDEC regional director previously told Nanz that it would never be protected as a wetlands.
At least five reports going back to 2005, including one from Parks’ own Natural Resources Group and another from its ecological consultants, have provided evidence of wetlands in all three basins. Nanz worried that the Critical Environmental Area tag could be used as cover for development of the west basin if it was not included.
In one impassioned exchange with Wells, Ridgewood resident Tom Dowd, 74, shouted, “Will you put it on the map?” regarding the possible wetlands in the west basin.
“We will update the map to resolve this concern,” Wells answered.
In 2010, Nanz and others filed an application for wetlands designation with NYSDEC. Two weeks ago, its regional supervisor finally conducted a field survey at the reservoir, and will visit again in July before releasing findings in the fall.
“Seven years is a long time to act on a permit application,” said New York environmental lawyer Edan Rotenberg. “Seven years is effectively ignoring it.”
This saga with the parks department began with an experimental dance project. In 2007, choreographer and performer Jennifer Monson, who had been studying wildlife migration for years, organized a yearlong residency at what she called “a beautiful fairytale forest in the middle of the city.”
As part of her research, Monson asked the Brooklyn Bird Club to lead a bird survey. Jett, Nanz, and Steiner volunteered first. During periodic visits, they found almost forty different species using it as a breeding ground, and more than twice that many stopping there on their migration along the Atlantic Flyway.
As new visitors came to the reservoir for Monson’s performances, the Bloomberg administration, seemingly intent on leveling the forests there for sports fields even as it pledged to plant one million trees in the city, named it one of eight “destination parks.”
Recognizing the reservoir’s endangered state, those who wanted to see it remain a wildlife refuge created the Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance.
Because of the reservoir’s inaccessibility — the Jackie Robinson Parkway and several cemeteries cut it off from nearby Bushwick and Ridgewood — “the parks department anticipated going in there and getting shovels in the ground quickly,” Steiner said. “We did everything we could to stop them.”
They led field trips and bird walks for residents and politicians. In late June of 2008, then-comptroller William C. Thompson halted the plan because of financial and environmental concerns. Months later, the economic crash quartered the project’s budget, leaving only enough for renovations to the walkways and lighting.
The community groups declared victory. Then one evening in the fall of 2013, Glendale resident Gary Comorau, president of the alliance, attended a local community board meeting. The parks department was giving a presentation about remediating flooding at the reservoir. The city was going to breach the levees in three places, cut down nearly 500 trees, and build roads through the west basin. In short, destroy it — at a cost of at least $6 million.
“My mouth dropped open,” Comorau said.
State dam-safety regulations still classified it as a high-hazard dam, even though it never held water. Comorau learned that the annual rainfall in Ridgewood is less than forty inches. But even 10 feet of rain wouldn’t fill the reservoir.
Comorau mobilized his group. After months without answers, he hired Rotenberg, the environmental lawyer. As Rotenberg called local and state officials, making the point that there was no flood risk, Comorau and his associates convinced every elected official in the district, from the City Council to Congress, to write Governor Andrew Cuomo about their concerns.
In September 2014, NYSDEC Commissioner Joseph Martens said Parks had requested a reclassification of the reservoir as a low-hazard dam. (It was only formalized two months ago.) In a letter to politicians, Martens added that his staff would begin wetlands delineation of the reservoir “as early as this fall.”
Three years later, its protectors are still waiting.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Jett said after the meeting on the 21st. “For ten years we’ve been saying: landmark and wetlands. Then they won’t ever be able to destroy it.”