Indian Pond is Fieldston’s beating heart. A small, tranquil park surrounded by towering trees, it has delighted generations of children, who come to feed the ducks or watch the fish roil the water as they jostle for the scraps of bread the youngsters toss.

If Wave Hill boasts the most majestic natural beauty in Riverdale, Indian Pond offers the most domestic.

Now, that tranquility and beauty is being threatened. The owners of a home and property just outside the perimeter of the park want to build three more houses and slash a long driveway to the street. To do so, they would topple 50 trees, some of them as old or older than Riverdale’s first settlers.

Nor is this a matter of concern only to nearby homeowners. Despite the insurance-company-dictated signs that say the area is for Fieldston residents only, the pond has long welcomed all, without regard to whether they rent an apartment, own a co-op or occupy a house.

Indian Pond’s trees provide shelter to blue jays and cardinals, crows and starlings, chickadees, woodpeckers, warblers, wrens and orioles, and to larger birds, as well. Hawks are frequent visitors. A horned owl took up residence a couple of years ago, as did a black-crowned night heron. And this year, a great blue heron made its appearance. All of them would be displaced by years of construction and the destruction of their habitat.

At a recent meeting of residents concerned about this plan, the developer, his architect and his lawyer made soothing noises. Residents needn’t worry, they said, because the city’s regulators would look after their interests.

It was a claim as insulting as it was disingenuous. The proposal for Indian Pond offers a textbook example of the way influence is peddled in our city.

The developers have hired the law firm Davidoff Malito & Hutcher, which boasts that it is “the largest lobbying organization in Albany and New York City,” working “closely with legislative leaders, city and state agencies and administrative departments.” That’s a fancy way of saying: “We’re political fixers.”

Architect Harry Kendall told the residents he has been meeting for a year with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which enforces the rules of the Fieldston Historic District. He did not mention that his partner Stephen Byrns was, until a couple of months ago, the Bronx representative on the landmarks commission.

Even if Mr. Byrns absented himself from the discussions, his firm’s plan inevitably gained credibility from his six-year association with his fellow commissioners and the commission staff.

Belts and suspenders people, the developers have not only retained the Davidoff firm to influence the Department of City Planning, which enforces Riverdale’s Greenbelt regulations; they have hired former City Councilwoman June Eisland, as well.

As the council member from Riverdale, Ms. Eisland built a reputation in city government as a defender of her community and its concern for green and open space. Now she is trading on that reputation to destroy those values. She is cashing in the goodwill, the support and the votes of her neighbors, betraying the interests she once represented.

The forces pressing the city’s planning bureaucracy for a favorable verdict are formidable. But Riverdalians have met such challenges many times. In fact, Fieldston was born from a challenge to its natural beauty.

When Edward Delafield conceived Fieldston nearly a century ago, he was responding to the threat of destructive development. “The men who as boys had played among the towering crags and giant trees could not bear to have them destroyed,” he declared.

The time has passed when one man or one family could determine the community’s future. What is required now is the power that can be wielded when people come together to fight for the truth that there are things more valuable than profit and stronger than political influence — values like safeguarding trees and birds and the laughter of a child feeding the ducks.

A version of this editorial appeared in The Riverdale Press on December 10, 2010.


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