Yankee Stadium Is Opening but Not the Parks

by Anne Schwartz, Apr 13, 2009

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in early April, people of all ages crowded into the temporary South Bronx park at 161st Street and Jerome Avenue. The three-acre synthetic turf field and track is pinch-hitting for the parkland slated to replace 22 acres of Macombs Dam Park now vanished under the new Yankee Stadium. A baseball team practiced on the diamond at one corner of the field; in another corner, a half-dozen boys played soccer. Squeezed in the middle, members of the Bronx Colts football teams ran their drills.

Their coach, Leroy Freeman, Jr., stood and watched. He said that finding practice space, especially this time of year when so many sports compete for space, has been difficult during the three years since Macombs Dam Park closed. Like many school and neighborhood teams, the four football teams fielded by his Bronx Colts Youth Foundation have been traveling around the borough to play their games. Freeman is impatient for the replacement parks to open.

"We've got kids out here that need these fields – they need these fields." he said. Being involved in the sports program, he said, "keeps them away from the streets, builds up their character. It gives them hope."

When the deal was made to build a new Yankees ballpark on the worn but beloved swath of parkland, the city said that most of the new parks to replace it would be ready when the new stadium opened. The Yankees play their home opener in the new stadium on April 16, but the first section of new parkland won't be finished until months after baseball season ends. However impressive the new facilities might be, residents are irritated at the delays and sad at the sight of the massive new structure in the middle of the former stretch of green. Many say the patchwork of new parks can never truly replace what they viewed as their Central Park.

The Park Swap

For the better part of two decades, the Yankees tried to get the city to replace their outmoded stadium, threatening to move the team out of the city.

In 2005 the team and the Bloomberg administration reached an agreement in which the Yankees would pay for the construction of a new stadium, assisted by more than $800 million in tax-exempt financing, property and sales tax exemptions and public subsidies for parking garages, new parkland and other infrastructure. The Yankees would get to build their new ballpark and several garages on parkland owned by the city -- to the north and west of the old stadium in Macombs Dam Park and part of Mullaly Park. By building there, the Yankees would displace four baseball fields, two basketball and 32 handball courts, 16 tennis courts, and a soccer/football field ringed by the quarter-mile Joseph Yancey Track, where the first U.S. interracial track team developed many Olympic athletes.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion and state legislators fast-tracked the legislative approval required to take over, or "alienate," the parkland before residents had a chance to have a say in the process.

By law, when parkland is alienated, it must be replaced by parks of equivalent value, usefulness and accessibility.

To comply with this, the city came up with a plan to build numerous new recreational spaces, ranging in size from less than half an acre to almost 10 acres. The pieces add up to about 32 acres, some of which is existing parkland or mapped parkland that had been used for other purposes. The sites include the rooftop of a parking garage being built on top of two of the former Macombs Dam Park ballfields, an abandoned industrial site along Harlem River and the footprint of the old Yankee stadium.

The Grand New Parks

Parks officials recently led reporters on a tour of the new parks under construction. They said the new recreational facilities will be much better than those they will replace and incorporate requests made by residents at a series of public meetings.

The centerpiece of the garage-top park will be a synthetic turf multi-purpose field for soccer and football, surrounded by a state-of-the art 400-meter running track, with bleachers overlooking it all. There will also be four basketball and eight handball courts, a comfort station and an office.

Part of the field and a temporary track is slated to open sometime in April, fenced off from the surrounding construction. The entire rooftop, being built in two sections, was originally set to open along with the new stadium. It now is supposed to come on line in spring 2010.

Parks spokesperson Jama Adams said that the department is no longer using synthetic turf filled with recycled black crumb rubber. Instead it will use a light-green-colored virgin rubber infill. This fill is cooler, although the exact amount hasn’t been determined, she said. Standard synthetic turf can reach temperatures of up to 130 degrees.

Beds at the edge of the roof will be planted with shrubs and trees. "When you're up here, you won't even know you're on a parking garage," said Thomas Balsley, the principal of Thomas Balsley Associates, the landscape architecture and urban design firm that is designing the new parks.

The rooftop park is at street level on the west but above grade next to the old Yankee Stadium. The stadium will be razed and replaced with three regulation ballfields -- for baseball, softball and Little League -- and renamed Heritage Park.

Balsley explained that the design seamlessly connects the garage-top park with Heritage Park. Heritage Park will also have a play area, grassy mounds where people will be able to sit and watch the games and perimeter plantings. "It is not normal to have such a rich landscape palette associated with sports fields," said Balsley. "I like to imagine it is a park and we have carved some ballfields out of it."

Between the two spaces will be a tree-lined walkway, called Ruppert Plaza, leading to the stadium from a pedestrian bridge to the new Metro North station.

Construction has also begun on the waterfront park along the Harlem River, across from the Gateway Mall scheduled to open in late 2009.

That parkland is being built on piles because of soil settlement. It will feature a pedestrian/bicycle path, a beach, passive park areas and viewing platforms and 16 tennis courts, a dozen of which can be covered with a bubble for indoor play. The concessionaire will have the option, parks officials say, to turn the four outdoor courts into a skating rink in winter.

The plan also includes renovating an historic powerhouse to house the tennis concessionaire, the Bronx park headquarters and rental space.

The Temporary Solution

To help compensate for the loss of playing fields, in 2007, a year after stadium construction began, the city opened the temporary ballfield and track at 161st Street and Jerome Avenue, a site earmarked for another parking garage. In 2008, it completed a synthetic-turf baseball field and refurbished the basketball and handball courts at P.S. 29, a mile away from the original park, and constructed a synthetic turf field for soccer and baseball at the West Bronx Recreation Center, a mile and a half away.

"To minimize the impact of the new park construction on the sports season, the department worked closely with neighborhood athletic teams and successfully accommodated all field permit holders on other fields, including: the interim ballfield at 161st and Jerome Avenue (formerly Lot 1), Franz Sigel Park, P.S. 29 Ballfield, Pelham Bay Park, Allerton Field, and Van Cortlandt Park," parks department spokesperson Jesslyn Tiao Moser wrote in an email message.

Using Yankee Stadium funds together with mitigation money from the Van Cortlandt Park filtration plant, the parks department has also nearly completed an extensive renovation of the remaining part of Mullaly Park. It added a synthetic turf soccer field, upgraded the two softball fields, and added new playgrounds, gardens and dozens of new trees.

The department began planting the trees in 2005, and has since planted 45 percent of the 8,000 young trees to replace the larger trees cut down in Macombs Dam Park, although only a few hundred are near the original park site.

A row of tall street trees along 164th Street, opposite Mullaly Park, got a reprieve, said Frank McCue, parks department stadia project manager. Once slated to make way for a parking garage, the trees were saved when the city decided to shrink the garage by 200 spaces instead.

More Days, More Dollars

Yankee Stadium and the new Metro North station were both completed on schedule, but the replacement parkland has been subject to delays and will be not be fully complete until the fall of 2011, according to the current timeline. Meanwhile, the estimated cost to the taxpayers, one that would not have been incurred if the Yankees had rebuilt their new stadium at the site of the old one, has risen from $116 million to $195 million, according to the Independent Budget Office.

At a City Council hearing in June 2008, Liam Kavanagh, parks department first deputy commissioner, said that the delays were due to the complexity of the sites as well as the discovery of an unexpectedly large quantity of toxic oil barrels at the waterfront site.

According to the budget office report, the cost increases can be attributed to the expansion and revision of some of the projects, unanticipated environmental clean-up, delays and a steeper climb in construction costs than initially estimated.

The delays and cost overruns seem a logical consequence of trying to replace parkland in an area where no natural open space remains. The three major replacement sites require complicated engineering, demolition and/or environmental clean-ups.

The city has not explained why it did not begin dismantling the old stadium immediately after the final season ended, so that it could begin construction of the replacement ballfields sooner. The Mets demolished their old ballpark as soon as the season was over.

The city also plans to build two pocket parks, a playground and a skate park on opposite sides of 161st Street, across River Avenue from the old stadium. The sites are now paved lots that were actually mapped as parkland but have been used for stadium parking and, as a result, require environmental remediation.

Scattered Sites

No matter how well designed and up-to-date the new facilities turn out to be, neighborhood residents and park advocates maintain that it was never a fair exchange. The new parks, plazas and sports fields will be scattered throughout the neighborhood and beyond, closer to the pollution and noise of the Major Deegan Expressway. The waterfront park site – the largest segment at 9.88 acres – is a 20 to 30 minute walk from residential areas.

Residents say that all these bits and pieces can never replace the breathing space an expanse of trees and grass provides, or the way such a centrally located park binds together a community and creates a sense of place and identity. In a neighborhood that suffers from some of the highest asthma rates in the city, they are also concerned about an increase in exposure to pollutants from the highway and fumes from the parking garage.

The felling of 377 mature trees and careless construction practices has exacerbated the air pollution. Throughout the construction process, trucks idled from 6 a.m. on, residents say, and the air was frequently filled with dust from construction trucks tracking dirt through the neighborhood.

Residents are also concerned about maintenance and safety in the new parks. Jose Rodriguez, district manager of Bronx Community Board 4, said that because the pedestrian plaza from the Metro North station to the stadium will be open 24 hours a day, neighbors are worried about the potential for crime and have asked for security cameras.

Locals also say that Macombs Dam Park suffered from lack of maintenance and wonder whether the city will be able keep up the new parks properly, especially given the current dire budget situation. Moser said that the parks department is "committed to maintaining the new parks with a combination of 'fixed post' and district maintenance and operations crews."

The Yankees, long accused of being a bad neighbor to the low-income community that surrounds the stadium, promised to donate $800,000 a year to neighborhood organizations through a Community Benefits Agreement made with local politicians, but none of the funding will go to parks maintenance.

That agreement has been criticized for lack of community input and delays in distributing the money; the organization set up to divide the money recently was sued for mismanagement. "There is no relation between parks and the Community Benefits Fund now, but we may consider how that money could be used to maintain parks," said Moser in an email.

Meanwhile, three springs after they lost their Central Park, the families of Highbridge – and the players and coaches on the soccer, football, baseball and track teams for the local schools and sports leagues – still wait for their parks.

When the partial field and running track opens on the garage roof later this month, the temporary ballfield will close to allow construction of another parking garage. Baseball players will be out of luck -- their new fields will be the last completed, after Yankee Stadium is demolished and Heritage Park is built.

Sean Sullivan, the principal and baseball coach at All Hallows High School, a parochial school whose teams used to play in Macombs Dam Park, told the Daily News, "We're like gypsies, running around the city trying to find a field to play in." The Yankee Community Benefits Fund recently turned down the school's request for $40,000 to help defray the $60,000 the school spent to replace buses to take the teams to their games.

"The Yankees are going to open up and the community still doesn't have what it's been promised," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. "And we did this all for the purpose of a private, for-profit corporation not to miss a day of making money."