In mid-August, city workers fenced off Macombs Dam Park and part of Mullaly Park in the Bronx, chopped down hundreds of large trees, and turned over the three-block site to the Yankees for the construction of a new stadium and VIP parking. For people who live and work in the surrounding neighborhood, the loss of their leafy community park, with its heavily used running track and baseball and soccer fields, was heartbreaking.
“It was a great joy to me to look out the window and see people using that park,” said one woman, who asked not be named because she worked for the city and feared retribution from the Bronx political machine. “That park was used every single day, even in the snow. The kids played there; the older people went around the track. It was a very lovely place for people to be.”
In exchange for removing 20.8 acres of parkland from public use, the city has committed to spend $160 million over the next four years on 24.5 acres of new recreational facilities and open space.
Many in the community opposed the swap, saying it shortchanged residents by taking a large, open space surrounded by mature trees in a residential community and replacing it with sports fields and courts in several locations further from where people live. The plans include a track and artificial turf soccer field on top of a parking garage.
Joshua Laird, assistant commissioner for planning at the parks department, said, “We think the community is going to get really greatly improved recreational facilities in a community that needs that.” But he also said, “The hardest aspect of this project for us is seeing those trees go. Our basal area formula will allow us to replace the functioning of the trees, but there’s just no way to replace the grandeur of a mature oak tree.”
Construction of the stadium is on schedule, but the building of the promised interim and replacement parkland has gotten off to a slower start. Now residents are wondering when â€“ and if â€“ the new parks will be built.
The park department’s plan calls for parks and fields on several sites:
- tennis courts and an esplanade on the now-derelict waterfront
- an artificial turf soccer field and a running track on top of a new parking garage
- three ball fields on the site of the old Yankee Stadium
- several passive park areas and paved plazas
To replace 400 large, old trees that were cut down, the city expects to plant about 8,000 smaller trees, most outside of the immediate neighborhood.
The parks department has said it will finish the detailed plans for the new parkland in consultation with the community. Laird said that community outreach has begun with several recent visits to community board meetings, and that the department will be hiring a community liaison person for the project.
The new parks and playing fields are scheduled to be completed a year and a half after the Yankee’s new stadium opens for the 2009 baseball season.
An interim track and a number of temporary fields are supposed to be in place before the permanent facilities are completed. But some promised deadlines already have not been met. City officials did not deliver on their promise to construct a temporary running course around two ball fields next to Yankee Stadium by the time construction started, for example. And, according to the environmental impact statement, by the fall of 2006, there was supposed to be a track and soccer/baseball field on a parking lot ultimately destined for a four-story parking garage; city officials now say they hope to complete the field by next spring, weather permitting.
All this has fueled the fears of residents who already feel betrayed by the Bronx borough president and other local politicians who fast-tracked the parkland takeover despite neighborhood opposition. Many don’t believe that the city will end up building all the replacement parks, especially the fields in the old Yankee stadium.
“My fear is that they’ll have cost overruns, find asbestos in the old stadium—blah, blah, blah—and they won’t be able to do it,” said JJ Brennan, a resident who founded Save Our Parks, a neighborhood group that has brought a lawsuit to stop the stadium. “No money is allocated right now. That part is not supposed to happen until after 2009. There will be an election before then, and we’ll have a whole new slate of politicians who can do whatever they want.”
Hector Aponte, parks department Bronx borough commissioner, says that such fears are unfounded. “At some point, people have to realize that the city is acting in good faith,” Aponte said. “All the people who were so critical of the Croton filtration plant are starting to realize that we are improving parks all over the place. There are naysayers who never believe anything. They have to give us some time. To say it’s not going to happen, when the Yankees just started construction in August, I don’t think that’s fair.”
WHERE DID THE SPORTS TEAMS GO?
When the Yankee Stadium redevelopment plan was up for approval, the parks department said it would help teams that used the park find other places to play, giving priority for the closest fields to youth teams. Aponte said that his department met with representatives of all the youth leagues that play in the park last spring and explained that there was going to be a shortage of fields. “Maybe a month ago, we sent out letters to all permitted people and made calls to let them know if they wanted alternate space to contact the permit office,” he said.
It is hard to tell whether or not all teams have found alternative places to play. The soccer coach at a local Catholic school said his team didn’t find a new home field although other teams in his league did. The school’s track team has not found a track for practice, so they have been using the sidewalks and the street.
According to Aponte, even without the loss of Macombs Dam Park, there would be a shortage of playing fields in the Bronx because so many fields are being renovated with mitigation money from the filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park. “The good news is that we’re renovating. The bad news is there are not enough fields,” he said. “We’ve asked teams to cooperate and share space. Up to now there haven’t been complaints.”
In a continuation of what some residents say is the Yankee’s history of disrespect for the largely black and Hispanic local community, the stadium construction is proceeding despite violations affecting the health and quality of life of residents. “Construction is still going on before 7 a.m. and on Saturday when the buildings department said they would not issue any more after-hours permits,” said Joyce Hogi, who lives across the street from the former park. A recent visit to the site found that trucks were not being washed down before leaving the site as required. It had recently rained, and Jerome Avenue was covered with mud. Residents said that when the weather is dry, the air is filled with dust. The neighborhood already has some of the highest asthma rates in the city.
“If you see what they’re doing with construction, they are already not doing what they promised,” said JJ Brennan. “Everything’s been a bait and switch with us.”
Asked about these complaints, Alice McGillion of Rubenstein Associates, spokesperson for the new Yankee Stadium, said, “The Yankees are in full compliance with all the construction rules and regulations.”
STILL FIGHTING, OR COMPLAINING
Save Our Parks, which has battled the project with few outside allies, sued unsuccessfully to block the stadium’s construction. It continues to press its lawsuit charging that the National Park Service did not conduct a thorough review before approving the project. The approval of the federal agency was required because Macombs Dam Park had received federal funding for improvements.
“If a conversion request comes through for a non-park use, such as the Yankees taking over Macombs Dam Park, it has to meet the criteria that it be of equal usefulness, accessibility and value, and we feel it is not,” said Hogi. At this point, it is too late to stop the stadium’s construction, she conceded. “What I’m hoping for -- this is as a private citizen -- is that we will get more parkland back. This community does not need four parking garages.”
Mary Blassingame, a former member of Community Board 4, which represents the area, led the board’s opposition to the stadium plan, and was later removed from her committee chair by Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion. She said, “What I’m hearing from the community is that people who were against the project, but weren’t reacting too much, are very, very upset now. People got really shocked when they saw the devastation.”
Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.Â