Yankee Stadium Parkland Swap

by Anne Schwartz, Mar 21, 2006

What if the city decided to put a stadium in the middle of your local park?

Don’t worry, though. The city would rebuild most of the displaced athletic facilities in several other places. Your old park is dilapidated, and the new one would have a sparkling new running track and state-of-the-art fields.

But instead of being set inside a large, green space surrounded by hundreds of mature trees, the fields would be scattered on separate parcels, including the tops of parking garages. The new recreational spaces would be closer to the highway and train tracks and an additional five-minute to half-hour walk from where people live. Most of the trees would be cut down. The new stadium would go smack in the middle of the community’s current park, next to a residential area.

That’s the parkland trade the city agreed to in the South Bronx, allowing the New York Yankees plan to build their long-desired new stadium in Macombs Dam Park. If this were to happen on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or in a middle-income neighborhood of Queens, there would be a howl of protest louder than when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in 2004.

New York State common law requires that when parkland is taken away from the public’s use, it must be replaced by new parkland nearby of equal or greater value. The parks department says that in return for losing Macombs Dam Park and part of John Mullaly Park, residents would end up with more acres of parkland and far superior playing fields. Residents say they would be shortchanged.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, and state legislators have fast-tracked the plan, which includes a stadium with fewer seats but with luxury boxes and wider concourses, as well as four new garages to hold about 5,000 cars. In June of 2005, the state legislature swiftly passed the necessary approval to take the park, before most residents were aware it was happening. Last month, the City Planning Commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor, voted unanimously in favor of the plan. The plan will be final if the City Council approves it in April.

Opposing the plan are park advocates, fiscal watchdogs, and mass transit supporters, as well as residents of the neighborhood and nearby South Bronx communities, who were not consulted when the Yankees and the city worked out the deal. The local community board voted two to one against the plan in November of 2005, but the board has only an advisory role. Tony Costa, a long-time resident and member of Save Our Parks, one of the groups fighting the stadium, said, “The Yankees made the plan and then said, ‘Come on, why don’t you love it?’”

The taking of parkland for the stadium and parking garages raises a number of public health and environmental justice concerns. The area’s residents are mostly black and Hispanic, including many recent immigrants from Africa and Central America. It has some of the highest rates of asthma and obesity in the city, yet the lowest ratios of parkland to 1,000 residents. With public funding for four new parking garages -- but not for a stop on the Metro North line that goes right through the area -- the plan seems guaranteed to increase traffic and pollution.

There are other problematic aspects to the plan, including the taxpayers’ contribution to its financing and overblown projections of economic returns to the city and neighborhood, which are addressed in a recent report by Good Jobs New York and Tom Angotti’s Gotham Gazette article, Yankee Stadium Without Tears. But let’s leave those issues aside and look more closely at the parkland exchange.

What Would Be Lost

Macombs Dam Park and a third of the adjacent Mullaly Park. The stadium and a VIP parking garage would go in the middle of a long rectangle of recreational space that residents consider their Central Park. Nearly 400 mature trees, which beautify the neighborhood and filter pollutants, would have to be chopped down. The apartment buildings across the street, which were designed to be opposite the park, would face directly onto massive stadium walls to be built right up to the sidewalk.

The part of Macombs Dam Park that now wraps around the existing stadium would be replaced with parking garages, decked over to allow athletic facilities on top. The garages would be built on land that slopes down, so the playing fields would be level with the adjacent land.

The park space slated to be taken contains four baseball diamonds, one soccer field, 32 handball courts, two basketball courts, and 16 tennis courts. One of the most popular features is the Joseph Yancey Track and Field, used by school teams for practice and meets and by residents of all ages for exercise.

The plan pushes the recreational space away from the community and toward the waterfront, the Metro-North tracks, and the Major Deegan Expressway. The tennis courts, which also draw people from Manhattan and other parts of the Bronx, would be on the waterfront and a greater distance from the subway stop.

Macombs Dam Park is a community park where residents come to toss a football, take a stroll, and just enjoy the grass and trees. Families often gather on weekends to picnic while watching the men play soccer in the middle of the track.

During the three- to five-year construction period, residents would lose the use of most of the athletic fields. The parks department says it would try to minimize the disruption by phasing in construction and creating interim fields and by helping teams find other places they can play, giving youth teams priority for the easier-to-reach fields. According to the Environmental Impact Statement, a temporary running course in one location or another would be available throughout construction for walking, jogging and recreational running, but would not be suitable for competitive track meets.

What Would Replace the Lost Parkland

The current version of the project, called the “Alternate Plan” in the Environmental Impact Statement, provides 27.5 acres of replacement recreational space to the south of the existing parkland. It would include three ball fields on the current Yankee Stadium site and a track, a soccer field, and basketball courts on the roofs of parking garages. The rest would be in bits and pieces, including tennis courts about a half mile away on the waterfront and two tiny pocket parks, including one next to the spot where the subway emerges from the tunnel.

The swap provides a few additional acres of open space with pretty much the same recreational uses as the existing park. The details would be adjusted to meet the needs of the community when a final design is created, said Joshua Laird, assistant commissioner of planning at the parks department. He said the department is also considering building a special “destination” playground, the kind of place around which parents would plan a weekend outing with their kids. The department also hopes to bring more maintenance to the area through the community benefits agreement being negotiated with the Yankees.

Residents are particularly unhappy with the garage-top facilities. With the high rates of childhood asthma in the area, one concern is exposure to exhaust. Laird said that there will be no stacks or grilles in the park and that exhaust will be vented so as not to affect people using the space.

Residents also don’t like the replacement of natural fields with artificial ones. Synthetic turf is more durable than grass, which is quickly worn to dirt with the hard use city ball fields get, and the parks department is installing the artificial stuff in fields all over the city. But because synthetic turf is much hotter than grass, the rooftop fields, which would lack the trees of the existing park, would likely get steaming in the summer. Laird said that trees would be planted between playing fields in pockets where the soil could be deeper, although it’s hard to believe anything could grow successfully except small ornamental trees. There is also a possibility that security concerns would make these spaces off limits on the team’s 80-plus game days.

The tennis courts would be moved to the Harlem River waterfront. At present, that is a 30-minute walk through a run-down, deserted area, across a scary covered pedestrian bridge over the Metro North tracks and then underneath the elevated expressway. (The Yankees rejected this area for the stadium because of its limited public access.) The area immediately surrounding the courts would be landscaped and include a pedestrian esplanade, but it would remain isolated along an industrial stretch. There is a construction demolition debris plant a pier away on one side; stadium parking would go on the other.

According to Laird, however, plans are in the works to transform the area. “Part of the reason people have been skeptical about the waterfront is that they have in their minds’ eye the conditions today,” he said. The parks department would replace the pedestrian bridge and make it handicapped-accessible. The city is backing a developer’s proposal to replace the nearby Bronx Terminal Market with a million-square-foot mall of big-box stores, a large project whose environmental impacts have not been considered in conjunction with the Yankee Stadium plan.

As for the trees, there really is no way to give the neighborhood back what would be destroyed. The environmental impact statement said the city would mitigate the loss of the 40-year-old trees by planting “from between 8,356 trees of a 3½ inch caliper to 29,248 trees of a 2-inch caliper within the replacement recreational facilities and along streets.” Laird said that the department figures on planting between 8,000 and 12,000 street and park trees, but many would have to go outside the area that would suffer the loss. Some would even be planted outside the neighborhood. In addition, newly planted street trees have a very low survival rate due to the city’s hot, dry conditions and to errant trucks and automobiles.

The Trade-off

The main benefit for the community to the parks swap is that it will replace the old track, fields, and courts, which are in poor condition because the parks department hasn’t had the maintenance funding to care for them properly or capital funds allocated to replace them. Given enough money, the parks department can undoubtedly design beautiful new recreational facilities.

But a park is more than the sum of its fields and courts. It is the breeze under the spreading arms of a tree, the fresh smell in the air after a rain, the feeling of being in the middle of a green space apart from brick and concrete. It is a place close by where neighbors come together and community is formed. It makes city life a little easier when you can see a bit of green and sky across the street or down the block. Are these luxuries only for people in affluent neighborhoods?

Even opponents of the plan want the Yankees to stay in the Bronx and to get a modern stadium. But especially in a neighborhood that is already short on green space and long on health problems worsened by the lack of exercise and fresh air, taking a tree-lined community park and replacing it with artificial playing fields farther from where people live should be the last resort, used only for something that has a clear public good.

It is a dangerous precedent to take land held in the public trust for the benefit of a private corporation. Supporters say the new stadium will bring jobs to an economically stressed community. If a few hundred new minimum-wage and temporary construction jobs (that may or may not go to local workers) justifies giving away parkland to baseball’s wealthiest team, then why not let businesses build in every park?

In the rush to get approval, the city and the Yankees have dismissed alternatives that would let the team have its stadium and at the same time allow the community to keep its park. Elected officials need to subject the plan to greater scrutiny and to negotiate a better deal for the neighborhood and the city. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, going forward with the current plan would be making a wrong mistake.