Elected officials and community members in Bayside expressed concern over the Fort Totten Park Conservancy, which they said was established without community input.
On Aug. 13, state Senator Tony Avella held a press conference in his Bayside office with Assemblyman Edward Braunstein and members from Community Board 7, Friends of Fort Totten Park and the Bayside Historical Society. According to the group, they were individually approached by a woman named Ann Sklar, who said she started the park conservancy as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
“In April I had a woman come into my office and say she represents the Fort Totten Conservancy and my first reaction was, I didn’t know there was one. I knew there was a Friends of Fort Totten [but I] never heard of this,” Avella said.
The senator said that he questioned Sklar about the motives of the organization and its members. He quickly found out that she did not live in the district and formed the organization without community input.
Warren Schreiber, a co-founder of Friends of Fort Totten said that Sklar told him she lived in Riverdale in the Bronx but planned to move out of New York City to the village of Larchmont in Westchester County.
Upon setting up a broader meeting with Bayside community groups and the NYC Parks Department, all of whom Sklar had spoken to in some capacity, they discovered that the woman was attempting to create a job for herself and requesting a $100,000 a year salary. According to them, the Parks Department seemed to be giving the Fort Totten Conservancy “tacit support.”
“That lady did outreach to us and my answer was I was not going to speak to her because as soon as I knew that she had no bearing with the Friends of Fort Totten, I didn’t understand why an outside agency would be moving forward as well as the Parks Department giving her any credibility at all,” said Eugene T. Kelty, chair of Community Board 7.
According to Joe Branzetti, the co-president of Friends of Fort Totten, Sklar told him that she owns an antique business on 125th Street and First Avenue in Harlem and a similar shop in Maspeth. The group’s shared suspicion was that she wanted to form the Conservancy in order to take down the old buildings in the area, salvage parts from them and sell what she could at her stores.
Concerned Council members, Assembly members and community organizations addressed a letter to Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver and Mayor Bill de Blasio in June asking them to reach out to the community before “forming an organization to repair the buildings at Fort Totten.”
“As you may be aware, the Fort Totten Park Conservancy is an independent entity and does not have any formal relationship with NYC Parks. We understand your concern for how the organization was formed, yet their mission is in line with our common interests for the park. We hope there may be a way forward for such likeminded people to work together, in close collaboration with elected officials and the local community, for the betterment of Fort Totten Park,” said Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski in a July letter.
President of the Bayside Historical Society Paul DiBenedetto said that the existing organizations and NFPs (not-for-profits) should have been considered when creating the conservancy.
“I hate the fact that the buildings are not being used, but a lot of them are being used and being used properly by city agencies and in our case, a nonprofit,” DiBenedetto said. “You need to work with the people; you don’t just go and do something and step on us.”