Saturday, January 07, 2006

01/07/06, The New York Times: "A Bronx Cheer"

A Bronx Cheer

Published: New York Times, January 7, 2006

When the January wind whips down the Harlem River in the South Bronx, threading through the 1920's facade of Yankee Stadium, baseball season seems far away. But in the Highbridge neighborhood around the stadium this year, the sport is on many minds.

It was six months ago that the Yankees proposed building an $800 million, 53,000-seat stadium that the team would pay for entirely. The city would replace the 22 acres the team wants for the stadium in the Mullaly and Macombs Dam parks with 28 acres of parks, ball fields and tennis courts.

It seemed like a perfect plan. The South Bronx, where the Yankees would remain, would get a new shot at economic revival. Elected officials could boast that they had kept the club in the Bronx at modest public cost. And the team would get a stadium with plenty of luxury boxes.

But now the few murmurs of dissent that greeted the proposal have swelled into something stronger, even with baseball and opening day a distant dream.

"I'm a Yankee fan," Ernesto Maldonado, who lives just west of the Yankees' historic home, said during a noisy public hearing last month in the rotunda of the Bronx County Courthouse, where the team laid out its plans to build a new home in two neighborhood parks. The meeting attracted no fewer than 500 people, with dozens forced to wait outside.

"I'm totally opposed to this," he said. "We've never benefited from the stadium, and we don't believe we'll ever benefit from it."

Much of the anger is focused on a plan that would eliminate nearly all of the popular Mullaly and Macombs Dam parks, which are about as old as Yankee Stadium itself, and replace them with smaller parks scattered around the neighborhood. Some would be placed on the roofs of new garages for stadium parking, and one would be on the waterfront along the river.

But the team's plan has also suffered from a longstanding perception that the Yankees have been a bad neighbor with nothing but contempt for residents of one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods. The dispute has reopened old fissures between the club and residents who still resent the team owner George Steinbrenner's loud complaints about falling attendance and crime at a time when the most common arrest on game days was of drunken fans for public urination.

The knotty relationship has been complicated by the team's periodic threats to move to Manhattan or New Jersey.

In recent months, the Yankees have increased contributions to Bronx youth groups and access for Spanish-language newspaper and television reporters. But many residents complain that the team reaps millions of dollars of revenue in the South Bronx, but performs little meaningful community outreach and did not consult most residents about the new stadium plan until November. Many have not forgotten the furor over a Yankee executive, Richard Kraft, the team's vice president for community relations, who in 1994 resigned over remarks attributed to him in which the phrases "colored boy" and "monkeys" were used to describe neighborhood youths.

"They just ignore this community," said Mary L. Blassingame, 64, a member of Community Board 4, whose district includes the stadium. "If they had been a good neighbor, they would not have put this plan through."

Critics of the plan have started petition drives and held protests. The plan was rejected by the local community board - a move that, while not legally binding, is an important gauge of the neighborhood's mood, and was especially embarrassing to Adolfo Carrión Jr., the Bronx borough president, who supports the new stadium and appointed the board's 50 members.

To go forward, the stadium proposal needs the approval of the city's Planning Commission, which is scheduled to take it up later this month, and eventually of the City Council.

It calls for construction to start by this summer, and for the new stadium to be ready by opening day in April 2009. When the stadium is finished, the current structure would be razed and transformed into a public park with baseball and softball fields. A soccer field and a track would be built on the street-level roof of one parking garage, while another garage would be turned into a skating rink.

Residents, however, say that the new parks would be a patchwork compared with what they now have, and that the two new proposed parks on top of parking garages are especially inappropriate for a neighborhood in which community leaders have complained about high rates of asthma.

The Yankees and the city's Parks Department, which is overseeing the project's design, say that they are working closely with the community to allay concerns, but that the current plan would greatly benefit the neighborhood economically and provide more parkland. The Parks Department has committed to spending $110 million on new parks in the area.

"People understandably have a tough time looking past what they have now, but in the end, they're going to have nicer facilities," said Joshua Laird, chief of planning for the Parks Department.

The plan is supported by almost all of the area's elected officials, as well as by some residents. Some support groups have received money from the Yankees.

Although the Yankees have agreed to pay for the cost of the stadium, the team would not pay rent, property taxes or sales tax on construction. The city would spend up to $135 million on replacing and improving local parks; the state would provide about $70 million for four new parking garages and low-interest financing.

Randy Levine, president of the Yankees, said the team has tried to burnish its image in the Bronx in recent years and deepen its ties to the community. In the past, he conceded, the stadium was "like an island in the Bronx," remote and uninviting.

Last year, he said, $291,000 of the $1.5 million distributed by the Yankee Foundation nationally went to dozens of Bronx community groups, including Little League teams, the youth leadership program at 12 Bronx community boards, a soup kitchen and various churches. The team itself gave out an additional $450,000 in tickets, bats, balls, uniforms and caps, he said.

Brian Smith, the Yankees' director of community relations, said he was unsure how the team's contributions to Bronx-based groups in recent years compared with the 1990's.

Gary Israel, coach of the Morris High School robotics team, said that he was shocked by the criticism of the Yankees, who had been helpful to his program. Over three years, the Yankee Foundation gave the robotics team $39,000, helping it travel across the country to compete.

Mr. Carrión said the project would guarantee construction jobs for residents of the Bronx, which has the highest unemployment rate in New York State. "There's always been opposition to change, and the argument that I'm making is that this is a change for the better," Mr. Carrión said.

Still, the Yankees lack a deep reservoir of good will in the surrounding neighborhood, where residents might otherwise have given the team the benefit of the doubt. Highbridge residents have collected thousands of signatures - they say more than 4,000 - opposing the project.

The Mullaly and Macombs Dam parks attract large crowds, particularly on summer weekends, and have been the playing fields of generations of children who dreamed of playing in the stadium next door. Macombs Dam Park's quarter-mile track was once a major training center for athletes, including Hannes Kohlemainen, a long-distance runner from Finland who won three gold medals in the 1912 Olympics. It is now used for school track meets.

The location and utility of the new parks are crucial, because federal law dictates that if parkland is removed from public use, it must be replaced by public parks of "at least equal fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location."

Some residents are also concerned about traffic, noise and pollution. And they complain that the parks would not be completed until after the stadium is completed, and that a rooftop ball field is a poor substitute for a tree-lined park.

"We are not against the new stadium," said Pasquale Canale, a member of the community board, president of the 161st Street Merchants Association and the owner of the Hero Factory sandwich shop. "We're against taking parks away from the neighborhood and sandwiching that big stadium up against the apartment buildings right across the street."

Mr. Laird said the city had accelerated the creation of parks and ball fields because of community comments and at Mr. Carrión's urging.

Still, Peggy Escalera, a 35-year resident whose two sons grew up playing in the park, did not feel assured as she listened at the public hearing on Dec. 12. Some of her neighbors were barred from the hearing because construction workers backing the project had gotten in early, taking many seats.

"We just feel so disrespected," she said. "People feel as if they weren't consulted. They created a plan, and then talked to the community."


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