Fort Totten Conservancy founder responds to ‘false claims’ from Bayside lawmakers & activists

Photo via NYC Parks Department

The founder of the Fort Totten Park Conservancy is calling out the “false claims” made against her by Bayside residents and elected officials last month.

In August, Senator Tony Avella joined Assemblyman Ed Braunstein and representatives from the Friends of Fort Totten Park, Bayside Historical Society and Community Board 7 for a press conference expressing their opposition to the conservancy.

The group claimed that Sklar approached them with the intention of starting the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and was asking for a $100,000 a year salary. They also said that she owned antique businesses in Harlem and Maspeth where she intended to sell salvaged parts from the historic Fort Totten buildings.

But Sklar reached out to QNS and charged that these claims are untrue, remarking that she is “trying to do a good thing.” The conservancy founder said that she noticed a need for preservation and rehabilitation efforts at the park and started to seek community input in late 2017.

“The mission of The Fort Totten Conservancy is to restore and sustain Fort Totten in partnership with the city and local government, local corporations, foundations and citizens to create and enrich a community resource,” said Sklar in a written statement.

She made clear that it is not her intention to “come in and change anything” but instead wishes to gain community input to find out their wants and needs. The founder said that she has found support in the community and other agencies she has been working with but refused to disclose any names to avoid political backlash.

Sklar was inspired by the work of the Central Park Conservancy, which has a program that educates individuals on how to start their own conservancies. Sklar denied the claim that she asked for a $100,000 salary for her work in the conservancy and said that the actual salary would be “close to poverty.”

In the year that she has been working on the conservancy, Sklar said that she had been reaching out to all the appropriate groups and authorities, including the groups present at the press conference and the New York City Parks Department. In June, Parks wrote a response to Avella and other members of the group, stating that the conservancy operated separately from the Parks Department.

“Since Fort Totten Park was opened to the public in 2005, we have worked closely with community organizations and various stakeholders to continually improve the parkland and its amenities as well as offer a variety of programs for the public’s enjoyment,” said Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski in a statement. “We understand the concern for the local community to remain involved in the continued development of Fort Totten, and we hope there may be a way forward for such like-minded people to work together for the betterment of this park.”

At the August press conference, the group noted that Sklar did not live in Bayside and raised suspicions as to why an outsider would take such a keen interest in the park. The Westchester County resident shared that she is connected to Queens through her family, who has “deep, historic roots” in Maspeth. She said that prior to living in her current residence, she lived in Manhattan and would often visit Fort Totten Park for events and leisure.

She said that although she does not live in the immediate community, she is serving as a “catalyst” for positive change to happen in Fort Totten.

But Matthew Silverstein, President of the Bay Terrace Community Alliance (BTCA) said that Sklar’s interest in Fort Totten is “odd” and that before the conservancy, he had never heard of Sklar. He also said that neither he nor the BTCA were contacted by Sklar to discuss the conservancy. The BTCA is the official neighborhood civic association for the Bay Terrace community, which includes Fort Totten.

“Fort Totten does need attention, but there are organizations here that are trying to do that,” said Silverstein. “If someone is really concerned about our community, then they should reach out to organizations like ours, who are working every day to protect our quality of life and that includes Ft. Totten.”

He added that there had been pushback from the Parks Department in the past when groups in the community had discussed improvements and rehabilitation to Fort Totten Park.

Avella and The Friends of Fort Totten could not be reached for comment at this time.

Story updated on Thursday, Sept. 13 at 5:15 p.m. to reflect comments from The Bay Terrace Community Alliance. 

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