St. Michael’s aims to buy 4-acre strip

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St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst hopes to buy a nearly 4-acre strip of open space adjacent to its property, but the city Parks Department said the sale will not go through unless an equivalent amount of open space is found.

“Right now, St. Michael’s hasn’t identified a replacement parkland,” said Trish Bertuccio, spokeswoman for the Parks Department.

Bertuccio said before parkland can be sold, it must be alienated — that is, reclassified from parkland/open space to another designation. The state Legislature needs to approve this and state Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) has introduced legislation to reclassify it, but Bertuccio said the Parks Department has sent a memo saying it temporarily opposes the legislation until St. Michael’s can find about 4 acres of open space to be newly classified as parkland.

But Ed Horn, director of community relations at St. Michael’s, said the insistence on a land swap is misguided.

“The Parks Department is stuck on principle vs. reality,” Horn said.

The open space in question is a narrow strip of land that runs on the east side of the cemetery along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and ends at 30th Avenue. The land can only be entered from 30th Avenue and is otherwise blocked off by the railing along the BQE and a fence along the cemetery’s property line.

Horn said the land is unusable as a park, given its narrow shape. He also said it is ill-kept and the Parks Department rarely maintains it: Litter is strewn about the area and poison ivy grows along the gates. He said some BMX bikers use it, but he does not believe it is safe for them, as they could get entangled in the vines or hit a tree.

“This is ... a danger to the community,” Horn said.

He also said an independent appraiser the cemetery hired estimated the land’s value at $1.4 million, a price at which Horn said it would be unlikely the cemetery could buy an equivalent piece of land. He suggested instead the cemetery give the Parks Department land to update other parks in the area, such as building bathrooms and a water fountain for the nearby St. Michael’s Park across the street from St. Michael’s Cemetery.

“That will serve the purpose better,” Horn said.

The sale of the open space to the cemetery has been supported by legislators in the community. Community Board 4 recommended the open space be sold to the cemetery after doing an on-site analysis and determining the land could not be used for recreation.

“I don’t think anybody knows that it was even Park’s property,” said Lucille Hartman, CB 4’s district manager.

City Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) said he supports the sale. He said it is difficult to find such a large open space, but he is trying to look for an equitable swap.

“I’ve got a lot of smaller areas in mind that would be much more used by the community,” Vallone said.

Cheryl Huber, deputy director of New Yorkers for Parks, said she believed park maintenance was important, but would prefer a land swap to an exchange of money.

“They’re not building a high-rise but they’re still preventing active use of that space,” she said.

Horn said he believes the sale of the open space to the cemetery would better serve the needs of the community and all five boroughs. The cemetery could maintain the property as well as use it to keep St. Michael’s open for 20 years — 10 more years than they expect to be open.

“People return to this area to be buried with family members who’ve been here since 1852,” Horn said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Updated 6:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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