The Kings Park Psychiatric Center has been closed since 1996.

The Kings Park Psychiatric Center has been closed since 1996. Credit: James Carbone

Nineteen years after Nissequogue River State Park opened on the grounds of the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center on Long Island’s North Shore, officials are seeking a master plan to decide how best to use what is now a 521-acre site. 

New York State lawmakers on June 18 overwhelmingly passed a bill sponsored by Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) that would require state parks officials to begin the plan within 60 days and finish a year after that. The bill, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not yet signed into law, would also codify the park’s status, quelling doubts about a site where developers once proposed building thousands of homes. 

A master plan, written in consultation with residents, state agencies and other stakeholders, would assess park resources and the goals and costs of development. It would also address demolition of 44 asbestos-contaminated hospital buildings and other cleanup, a task whose complexity and cost — $200 million, New York State parks officials estimate, in addition to the $31 million Flanagan secured for work already done — has prevented full use. The state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation cannot now foot that bill, said Dan Keefe, a spokesman. The capital budget for all state parks last year was $110 million, he said. 

A Cuomo spokesman said his office would review the legislation. Flanagan said in a statement that he looked forward to Cuomo's approval "so we can ensure a bright future for this wonderful local resource."

Rob Freudenberg, vice president of energy and environment for the Manhattan-based Regional Plan Association, said the park "could be one of the crown jewels of the New York State Parks system.” But its size, complicated history and cleanup cost present challenges, he said. “Everyone can imagine the park they want without having to consider the consequences. With a plan, you weigh the opportunities with the costs.”

Former state parks commissioner Bernadette Castro, who oversaw the park’s creation, warned that any plan would have to reckon with demolition and that implementation on a reasonable timeline was hard to envision “unless you have private money coming in.”

Public-private partnerships have succeeded at the Jones Beach bandshell and the Bethpage golf courses, she said. A project such as rental cabins at Nissequogue River could help make the park self-sustaining, she said. 

The legislation would apparently not affect a proposed Department of Environmental Conservation headquarters near the park waterfront that some advocates oppose because of its location. A DEC spokesman said the agency “continues to advance the development” and will release a construction schedule soon. John McQuaid, president of the nonprofit Nissequogue River State Park Foundation, said that project should pause while a plan is developed, a view that is not shared by the local civic group. 

McQuaid and Linda Henninger, president of the Kings Park Civic Association, said they hoped a master plan would speed cleanup and funding.

Englebright was also optimistic but said the remaining buildings — some architecturally significant and salvageable — have decayed over decades of inattention. “There was no real guidance given by the Legislature and by various executives,” he said.

The history

  • The psychiatric center, open from 1885 to 1996, was one of the world’s largest mental hospitals, at one point serving 9,300 patients.
  • In 2000, state officials, trying to unload surplus land at closed mental health facilities across New York, designated 155 acres of psychiatric center grounds as parkland and tried to find a developer for the rest. Three deals collapsed, largely over cleanup costs and local opposition to high-density proposals..
  • In 2006, officials transferred 365 acres of the former hospital’s grounds to the parks office.

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