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Battle over tiny park is 'David vs. Goliath' story

You know the story of David and Goliath. Well, a tiny "pocket park" here amid a cluster of skyscrapers has become the focus for the latest version of that tale.

Real estate kingpin Harry Helmsley, who owns the park and wants to pocket some profit from its development as an apartment tower, is a giant in real estate holdings. But nearby residents who want to preserve the green nook are definitely leaving no stones unturned trying arm themselves with ways to stop him.

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The Tudor City Tenants Association, representing occupants of a middle-income multi-apartment-house complex on 42nd Street near the United Nations, has won a temporary restraining order halting demolition of the little park until later this week. The association is also working with the mayor's office on a plan to give Mr. Helmsley another site in the same vicinity if he promises not to touch the park.

Some tenants and their children and dogs and cats have even held "sleep ins" at the Tudor City minipark to make their point.

These sling-shots may or may not work but one thing is certain: Similar parks throughout the country have been saved in recent years through a combination of citizen activism and local and federal government intervention.

Two examples:

Park Place in Atlantic City, N.J., made famous by the game of Monopoly, was eyed by some casino developers as a place to build a gaming palace. But a tough city statute, coupled with the support of local residents and the Atlantic City Fine Arts Council, have brought the delapidated little park more than just survival. Three casinos, which used the park as a storage area in the past, have promised to spruce it up beyond its former glory.

In Memphis, Tenn., it took nearly nine years and a US Supreme Court decision before much larger Overton Park was protected from a highway that was scheduled to slice through it. There was enough "enlightened self-interest" on the part of citizens, however, says Robert McNulty, president of Partners for Livable Places, that they even blocked efforts by US Sen Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee to get around the Supreme Court decision. Partners is a nonprofit organization interested in making cities more livable.

Some residents of Tudor City have pledged to take their fight all the way to the highest court in the land. But Overton Park, Park Place, and others like Jackson Park near the Loop in Chicago, which has successfully survived a battle to develop it, were public, not private parks. Mr. Helmsley owns the Tudor City park -- oaks, benches, and grass. Thus tenants have virtually no legal ground to stand on even though some spokesmen say that when they moved in they were promised that the park would remain a park.

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On the other hand, Mr. Helmsley is willing, he said through a spokesman, to "swap parks" with the city. The city-owned plot is actually a cement-covered playground.

Tom Goldstein, press secretary to Mayor Edward I. Koch, told the Monitor that the city thinks a compromise can be worked out, but "not a swap."

"For many reasons people are now standing up for parks that are threatened with development," says Clint Page, a spokesman for the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C. Among the reasons, he explains, are the gas crunch and the growing recognition that small parks are actually "good neighbors" -- breathing spaces for crowded cities.

Mike Rogers, a spokesman for the United States Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, a federal agency, says: "The nationwide picture is that there is an awful lot going on to save parks" from development, as well as from a lack of proper care.

In this latter area, corporate giants are getting on a slow but moving bandwagon. The Avon Products Corporation has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Central Park's restoration and maintenance. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Corporation and the New york Life Insurance Corporation are the "caretakers" of Madison Square Park, not far from the Tudor City park. They pay the salaries of the cleanup crews even though Madison Square is a city park.

On the federal level, the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service has awarded some $55 million to cities to upgrade parks. Over the next five years, roughly $725 million (including the $55 million already awarded) will be spent on park rehabilitation in a Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program authorized by Congress two years ago.

But with fiscally strapped cities, and a federal government concerned with balancing its budget, urban parks still are being vastly underfunded, Mr. Rogers and other conservationists maintain. Yet there are signs that many parks are in better shape than just a few years ago. And the fact that some parks still exist, whatever their condition, is progress, some say.

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