By Steve Weinstein
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For Benepe, the point is simple: "It's a shame that a small handful of individuals is fighting our efforts to create a public amenity," he says, adding, "I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who would like to have a bungalow on the water. We could turn all the city's waterfront into a bungalow community, or hotels, or condos, but that's not what we're in the business for. There's a reason this group of private families would like to hold on to what they have: It's a sweet deal, and it's over."
As to why the situation had been ignored for so long—and why the Parks Department hasn't maintained New Dorp Beach—Benepe replies that he can't answer for previous administrations. He says that Staten Island is the state's fastest growing county, and that there's been talk of redeveloping the waterfront for some time. Oddo—who in 2006 used Council earmark money to build the tiny park that now exists at New Dorp—openly asks why the Parks Department has neglected New Dorp Beach. The Parks Department says it doesn't bother to maintain New Dorp because it is not a public bathing beach. "Once we assume maintenance responsibility at Cedar Grove, we'll be in a better position to maintain New Dorp as well," Parks Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh tells the Voice.
As the summer began, Cedar Grove members called on their political allies. With the notable absence of Borough President James Molinaro, most Staten Island politicians have thrown their weight behind the beach club. Congressman Michael McMahon, a Democrat, along with two Republican City Councilmen—Oddo and Vincent Ignizio—and Republican State Senator Andrew Lanza, have been the loudest advocates for the community. In a letter to Benepe from June, the politicians asked the city to extend the license agreements for the inhabitants of Cedar Grove until a "clear site plan has been presented and approved." The pols lamented what they referred to as Benepe's "hard-line stance" against the community: "The Cedar Grove community has maintained these grounds impeccably for all these years. It is unacceptable for Parks to evict these families without a plan being set forth for public use."
Meanwhile, some officials who don't have connections to Staten Island have also started to pressure Parks for a plan for the site. "They've yet to present what they plan to do with that property," says Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who chairs the Council's Parks and Recreation Committee. She says she has not been given information she has requested from the agency and is openly suspicious of the Parks Department: When she looked at the budget, "there were no allocations either on the capital end or the expense end for a park at Cedar Grove.
"The Parks Department doesn't feel like it has to be accountable to anybody," says Viverito, adding that the department has fallen behind on other park projects in Staten Island. "You're going to wrap yourself in the mantle of 'This is a public amenity,' but there is very little goodwill toward the Parks Department in Staten Island," she says.
So far, the Parks Department has been vague in its response to questions about plans for the site. The department has said little about what transforming Cedar Grove will cost, how it will be funded, when work will begin, which bungalows will be destroyed, and what they will be used for. Benepe says he intends to make it usable as a swimming beach within the next year or two, which brings up the big questions about financing. In a letter to Congressman McMahon, the department said that seven bungalows would be left intact (for lifeguard headquarters, equipment storage, food concessions, and, yes, a comfort station). Then, two weeks ago, Benepe told the Voice that only three or four bungalows would not be demolished, and that the matter was still under consideration. In contrast to the original letter he sent to the residents, he also said that he was not going to be developing neighboring New Dorp Beach for use as a public bathing beach (Cedar Grove, he said, was better suited to recreational activities).
He conceded that the budget was an issue, and recently, the Parks Department said that the first phase of the park work—$1.8 million—will be paid for by money accrued from the Beach Club Resident's rent payments. "Look, the budget is a problem, but the answer to a budget problem is not to have people do something which is illegal," says Benepe. "And it's illegal to have people living in a park."
Having forfeited the right to sue, the members of Cedar Grove Beach Club have been working what they're hoping might be their best shot at staving off the looming eviction. They've applied to the state to have the Cedar Grove Beach Club placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In early July, they got some encouraging news: An official from the State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation notified the Parks Department and the club members that the site is eligible to be put on the national register. (The office called the club "a rare surviving property type in New York City.") An editorial in the Advance echoed the cry for Cedar Grove to become a landmark. Ever since the vacation homes in New Dorp were destroyed in the Moses era, the editorialist contended, the city has let the town sink into ruin. For 50 years, the city did not bother to redevelop the areas it destroyed—nor did it build the town a proper sewer system—and the empty lots became a haven for abandoned cars and crime. "Cedar Grove Beach Club is the last remaining piece of New Dorp Beach's history," the editorialist wrote.