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City converts Fort Totten into waterfront park

"Opening Fort Totten Park fulfills a dream long held by the residents of Queens," Bloomberg said during a press conference in the sweltering heat at the new park, with the Throg's Neck Bridge looming in the background. "Fort Totten is certain to become one of the city's most popular waterfront parks." "Sea breezes, dramatic views of Long Island Sound - it's just what the doctor ordered on a hot summer day," he added."Fort Totten has always been very important to the borough," said borough President Helen Marshall. "We never wanted to let this place go."The city park has been a long time coming. Built in 1857 during the Civil War as an Army base, through the years Fort Totten has been used by the federal government for various military training purposes, and the headquarters of the 77th Regional Readiness Command are still located in the Ernie Pyle Center in the fort.The federal government planned to close the fort in 1995 and auction the land off to developers, but community activists successfully lobbied to retain the grounds for a possible future park. And while portions of the fort have been open to the public for years, including playing fields for local Little League and soccer teams as well as the Bayside Historical Society and the Fort Totten museum, the National Parks Service and the Department of Defense began the formal transfer of the fort to the city in 2004.U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside), who helped launch the community effort to keep Fort Totten from being sold to developers, gave Bloomberg the key to the park as a gesture of changing the fort's function from military to municipal purposes."'Nations shall beat their swords into ploughshares,'" Ackerman quoted. "Now the bulk of this land is changed from swords to parks."Most of the fort's 147 acres will still be home to various governmental agencies' outposts like the Fire Department, the Coast Guard and the 77th Regional Readiness Command, as well as local non-profits such as the Bayside Historical Society, which has been ensconced in the landmarked Officers' Club building since 1986. But the borough's newest park will span 49.5 acres of the fort under the auspices of the city Parks Department and will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. There are plans for guided tours of many of the fort's historic buildings and ranger programs, as well as cultural events outdoors in the summer."It's a fantastic place," said state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose), who gushed over the new park along with state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone), former borough president Claire Shulman, and City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), and General Richard Colt of the 77th at the press conference. Addressing one community concern of particular urgency, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe noted that public restrooms were slated to be built, with temporary facilities located in the parking lot and the parade grounds in the interim.Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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