Garbage in, Golf Course out

The course of a Bronx dump is forever changed—for better or worse, for richer and for poorer

"We will get the EPA and everyone and their mother involved if he passes that bridge line," says neighborhood resident Jimi Hughes, 50, who fought for years just to get the Parks Department to put a few picnic tables and barbecue sites on the west side of Ferry Point. "I'll have hundreds of people out there ready to deal with him."

Since the mid 1980s, when vandals stole the copper roof off the bathrooms on the west side of Ferry Point Park, none of the mostly working-class people who play soccer and softball, who have barbecues, and who fish off the sandy shore there has had a private pot to piss in.

All that's left of the former bathrooms are a few cracked feet of old tile floor. A formerly stately waterfront promenade is now buckling and weed-filled. The few remaining lamps along it do not work. The baseball fields have large, bare dirt spans. Many dead trees have not been cut down.

Ferry Point Park: Heavily neglected by the government, heavily used by the neighborhood
photo: Cary Conover
Ferry Point Park: Heavily neglected by the government, heavily used by the neighborhood

One of the most heroic stands of the Revolutionary War took place in 1776 on Westchester Creek, which now runs along the park's western edge. Twenty-five sharpshooting colonists shielded behind a woodpile prevented 4,000 redcoats from crossing the creek and cutting off General George Washington's communication and supply lines from Boston.

One of the big issues that war was fought over was taxation without representation.

About 230 years later, Gagné says he can add more cachet to the future course if it hosts a PGA tournament, but it would probably only be possible to do that if he could expand his course to 27 holes. The additional nine holes would be where the public park is now. At tournament time, that area could be used as a parking lot, he says.

He has backed off those plans for now, but he has not forsworn them, saying, "We may revisit it later, but for now it's not something we're considering." Nor has the Parks Department given a firm no to the idea. Ron Lieberman, director of revenue and concessions at Parks, says that the department is not currently interested in the idea of expanding to the west.

"If there ever were a day," he adds, "Ferry Point Partners would have to make the city whole, in terms of any loss of use of ball fields."

In other words, if the golf course expanded onto the west side, the city would expect Gagné's group, in exchange, to build ball fields somewhere else nearby.

Forty-seven thousand trucks have been signed into the golf site since October 2002 and allowed to dump their "clean" contents there. About 900 trucks since then have been turned away by the environmental monitors because their loads were deemed unclean: full of debris like pipes, old radiators, and other junk.

Pierre Gagné: Changing the course of the Bronx
photo: Cary Conover

If Gagné had not figured out how to change the arithmetic of that dumping, the project would have already far exceeded its permitted limits. What he managed to have changed is the "compaction factor." Because dirt carried on trucks is considered to be fluffed up, a calculation has to be made about how much that dirt settles once on the ground. Originally, the DEC determined that for each 10 cubic yards contained in a truck, 7.2 cubic yards would be the amount counted against the permit.

In September 2004, Gagné told the DEC that topographic surveys conducted by an airplane bouncing sound waves off the earth showed that there had been far more settling of the fill than the original compaction factor took into account. The DEC agreed and allowed the math to change. Now, for each 10 cubic yards trucked in, only 5.8 cubic yards is counted against the permit. The result: The trucks continue to come.

Perhaps only in New York would it be possible to collect so much fill. Creating contours on the course is only possible by building up, because digging down into the old garbage would be impossibly costly. Material that will be sculpted into mounds, fairways, bunkers, and greens has come from such gargantuan construction projects as the transportation hub at the World Trade Center site (not the ground zero site), the Time Warner Center, and the new American Airlines terminal at JFK.

Looking down Sampson Avenue from the course site
photo: Cary Conover
Each truck pays Laws Construction, the company Gagné hired to do the hands-on building of the course, to dump its contents at the golf course site. Critics of the course have charged that Gagné is profiting from the dumping.

Gagné says all the dirt he's gotten has allowed him to build a better course. Laws receives between $4 and $6 per cubic yard from dumpers, he says, and it costs roughly that amount to pay the environmental monitors and bulldoze the fill into place. He insists that what he has done is figure out a perfect system to build the course with more and more dramatic elevation changes than he and his partners first thought possible, without its costing him an extra nickel.

As part of its agreement with the city, Ferry Point Partners is building a public 19-acre waterfront park and esplanade and refurbishing a seven-acre community park in Throgs Neck. But Gagné is focused less on the local community members than on those who work in buildings farther away, the type who can afford to pay $100 and more for a round of golf.
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