Tuesday, January 10, 2006

An open letter to the City Planning Commission

Dear Members of the City Planning Commission:

I am writing to you as a public member of Community Board 4 and a resident of the neighborhood where a new Yankee Stadium has been proposed to be placed on top of John Mullaly and Macomb's Dam parks, cutting off the community of Highbridge from the retail and transportation center of 161 Street, and destroying more than 350 mature oaks and adding thousands of parking spaces to an area which already suffers among the highest asthma rates of the United States. All this so the second richest sports franchise in the world can expand its business model. And all they ask is that the public parks in the poorest congressional district in the country be converted to their use as a construction site for a new Yankee Stadium.

That this is poor planning is an understatement. And that it is entirely unnecessary makes it that much worse. Randy Levine has publicly stated that the major and most important reason that the Yankees not rebuild where they are is that they wouldn't earn quite so much money during the construction period. This is truly outrageous and insulting, but is it true? Most likely not as the engineering and construction fields have made enormous advances since the last time Yankee Stadium was rebuilt in the 1970's, and if they can rebuild the Triborough Bridge without closing it, the Yankees' season could surely be accommodated in a phased rebuilding/renovation strategy.

Yankee Stadium was constructed concurrently with the residential and retail communities that surround it. Macomb's Dam and John Mullaly parks have always served as buffers between the stadium and the residential buildings that line the parks. While the stadium is used some 80 plus days a year, because the parks, with their sporting facilities and large oaks that surround them, separate the stadium from the homes of Highbridge, the stadium does not create an undue burden. If a new stadium is constructed across 161 Street, this will change completely. As the stadium Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) states, real estate values are expected to decline in the area surrounding the new stadium. Those who have lived there the past 40 years, who have raised their families and are now looking forward to a quiet retirement along the gracious avenues they have loved all these years will be inclined to move out. These people are the anchors of their communities, and when they leave, their buildings are likely to become blighted. Do we really want to return to the days of the 1970's when the Bronx was burning? If this stadium moves across the street we will. And who will deserve the blame?

New York City Parks are not vacant lots. They are not awaiting "development". By allowing the Yankees to usurp these two parks we are setting an extremely dangerous precedent. They were alienated without public notice in June 2005 , but if the community had known what was to happen we would have boarded buses to Albany to let our elected officials know that we love our parks and want to keep them. Imagine moving to the edge of a park. Wouldn't you think that your view of lush trees is permanent? Wouldn't you strive to live there for the luxury that living on the edge of a park affords? Well this process puts into doubt the assumption that if you live on the border of a park, unless you decide to move you will always live on the border of a park. If public parks can so simply be given over to a privately owned company to build its new stadium, what is to prevent a publicly owned corporation from looking favorably on other pubic parks as future sites to construct retail outlets or headquarters? Don't scoff. It will happen if this deal goes through.

The Yankees and their advocates, the City of New York (named advocates by the Memorandum of Understanding), say that they are replacing our parks with equivalent parks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Replacement parkland for the Yancey Running Track, the baseball diamonds and the tennis courts is to be the old stadium site, together with about five acres of land more than a half mile away and on the other side of the Major Deegan Expressway, across acres of parking lots, and the Metro North rail line. Let's first look at what would happen to the old stadium site before we examine those five acres on the river.

What would happen to the old stadium site? It is anybody's guess. Charting plans for this site is like hitting a moving target, as the plans change depending upon who is speaking. The DEIS states that the field itself will be conserved as a "Heritage Field". It will be open to the public, by permit only, although not any where near the extent our present parks are open to us. It will be fenced off, you see. But we have been told by the city that we will be provided with benches so that we "can look at it." But plans are made to be broken, and now that the Yankees and the Borough President of the Bronx have finally woken up and found we just don't want this particular plan, they are saying that the original field will be converted into three fields. We also hear the Bronx BP say that there will be a high school, a museum, a hall of fame, etc, none of which have appeared in anything but his descriptions: no renderings, no site plans. If all these are constructed, one wonders how much park will be left to replace our present parks?

The Borough President has takin to calling his new "plan" a "central park" for the community. This is ridiculous. A central park is at the center of things, yet the old stadium is surrounded by nothing but parkland, shabby retail and parking facilities. Of course, the Borough President's "central park" will be bordered by all the above, except that the parkland which today borders the present stadium will be converted. Converted to what? A stadium or parking facilities! His "central park" will not be at the center of our community. But we already have a central park. Today. It is the conjunction of Macomb's Dam and John Mullaly parks. And they are bordered by pre-war Art Deco apartment buildings, and anchor the community of Highbridge. It is a travesty to call the replacement parkland a "central park".

As to the five acres on the river, it is well to remember we have been promised parkland along the river for many, many years. So this plan brings us nothing we were not already led to expect. The Draft Environmental Imapact Statement (DEIS) calls for yet more baseball/softball fields to be placed here, yet at the Borough President's "town hall" (which was anything but) meeting, the idea was presented of placing the tennis courts here, thereby fully removing from the community what has already been removed from us through privatization of these facilities. Either way they are so far removed from us that a parent who sends their child unaccompanied to this location would deserve a visit from Child Services. It is hard enough for an adult to negotiate the crosswalks and brave the hike through no-man's land. To send a child there alone would be criminal.

Now let us turn to the replacement parkland for the parking facility sites. They are to be built on top of the parking facilities. These are not parks, they are park features! That is a very different scenario. And we have been told that they will could be closed on game days for security reasons. That's 80 plus days a year. And these 80 plus days happen to fall between April and October, just when the weather is optimal for the use of the sporting facilities to be placed on top of these garages. But really, the most salient question here is: Why are we building thousands of new parking spaces for a stadium which will seat thousands fewer fans? We already suffer a plague of automotives on game day, and as planners you have surely heard of a thing called "induced demand". Building additional parking spaces will do nothing but encourage more fans to drive to the game. And additional exhaust can do no good for the many children and elderly who already suffer from asthma and emphysema. What is wanted here from a planning perspective is more mass transit, not more dependence on the private auto.

And yet this plan has no mass transit component. Congressman Serrano has been able to secure the allocation of a couple million dollars for the design of a sorely needed Metro North station, yet this plan throws over a hundred million dollars at the construction of parking facilities that will be used only 80 or so days a year. What is needed, again from a planning perspective, is to use that money to build a permanent train station. Tristate Transportation has conducted studies and has learned that many fans who normally take the train to work instead choose to drive on game days in order to avoid the need to take the subway downtown to pick up the train. They would happily take the train home from the game if they could. This, together with strengthened ferry service to New Jersey, could take the place of all these parking garages. And yet the 2005 Yankee season was a record breaker, not just for the Yankees but for all of baseball. More than 4,000,000 fans attended games last year at Yankee Stadium. Major League Baseball took out full page ads in the newspapers congratulating the Yankees. Evidently, Yankee Stadium is already filled to capacity at game after game, and without the thousands of parking spaces this plan calls for. Why build them if they aren't needed? Build them, and they will come! The cars, that is.

The City is prepared to exchange parkland for a massive stadium and for additional parking, and the Yankees haven't even threatened to leave! They can't go anywhere and they know it. The West Side was proposed in the 1990's, but a traffic analysis in 1998 determined that it would not be feasible for a Yankee Stadium. At that point, George Steinbrenner declared that he "wanted to stay in the Bronx." Despite the renovation of the 1970's, Yankee Stadium is a tourist gold mine. Although they like to say it isn't, it is historic: it is the first triple tiered stadium in the United States, and it was the first to have its supporting posts removed. It has hosted countless cultural events such as many World Series, Nelson Mandela, church revivals, the Pope, and the 9/11 memorial. Replacing this stadium with a simulacrum will not draw the numbers of tourists that a renovated stadium could. It should be renovated, not destroyed.

As I have mentioned before, the South Bronx suffers the worst asthma rates in the country. The construction of the new stadium, in the middle of a residential community and over the course of several years, can bode nothing but ill for the children whose lungs happen to be developing while the stadium is being constructed. The dust and pollution this project will throw into the air, and so close to a public school, will have a seriously negative impact on both our children and elderly. Not to mention the elderly who will suffer the last years of their lives navigating around a construction site to reach home. If the stadium were constructed south of 161 Street, these would all be avoided or mitigated.

And what if the present stadium were renovated? Even better! Fenway Park (older and smaller than Yankee Stadium) is being renovated as you read this, as are Wrigley Field, the Big A, and perhaps even Dodger Stadium. The Yankees have never explained in detail the problems with renovating the stadium. The DEIS does nothing more than say it would be too expensive. Yet the Ferrer plan of the 1990's proposed a renovated stadium at a cost of $189 million. Surely that figure would be higher today, but it would still be much less than the $800 million the Yankees say they will spend on a new stadium.

Of course, if you have been reading the papers you have seen that the Yankees have actually been losing money over the last couple years. One wonders how they will spend $800 million on a new stadium if they have been losing tens of millions over the past years. I live within my means, and when my income goes down I don't propose buying a new home, because I know there will be no one else to pay for it. Do the Yankees know something that I don't? That once the construction of a new stadium is commenced cries of poverty will get the city and state to step in and pony up the funds to complete it?

As it is, this project requires an outlay in excess of $450 million in public funds for related costs of replacement parkland and parking garages. In addition, the City will not receive rent or taxes on the new stadium. This is not an appropriate expenditure of public funds at a time when we have 50 students to a class in the schools that surround the stadium, and while we have been severely underfunding the maintenance of out vital city parks. The City is expected to run budget deficits of billions of dollars into the foreseeable future. We have more pressing needs for our hard-earned tax dollars: police, firemen and teachers are all underpaid, while our school system remains extremely under-funded. We should be positioning our city to be the education capital of a globalized world rather than wasting money moving parks, tearing down stadia and building parking lots.

Stadium investment is always a bad investment. They never create the economic impact that they are expected to, and planners like you have known this for a long time. And yet our Borough President consistently harps on the jobs to be created by building a new stadium. Actually, these jobs would be created if the stadium is built north or south of 161 Street, and they would also be created if the present stadium were renovated. But once the building or renovating finishes, the jobs disappear. The jobs inside the stadium, selling hotdogs or t-shirts, are seasonal and low paid. They are nothing to aspire to nor brag about creating. Meanwhile, the economic impact of increased asthma, massive disruption of the community and the temporary (perhaps it will only be temporary) loss of parkland are not figured into the economic impacts of this new stadium. Today we have children in our community who die of asthma or respiratory system-related illnesses. This plan is rendered with the blood of future deaths.

The Yankees and the Borough President like to boast that they are creating "the largest private investment in the history of the Bronx." the size of the investment is meaningless unless it actually benefits the community. But how are they doing it? By constructing a building. Nothing more. A shopping mall would be a better investment than this stadium. We could build a billion-dollar incinerator, or prison, and we could call these "investments." Should we allow Bill Gates to build a new billion dollar house in Central Park? He surely could provide the "largest investment in the history of Central Park". Is it so much that a new building is merely constructed? And that is just what this is: the mere construction of a new home for the Yankees. Actually, it isn't even a new home for the Yankees. Their winter home is in Florida, where they spend half the year and the lion's share of their money. What they will build here is nothing but a summer home for the Yankees. So let's let the Wal-Mart clan build a summer "cottage" in one of our parks. After all, it will count as an "investment" in the city.

The Borough President should fight for improvements that benefit the community, not destroy it. The South Bronx is improving. We can all see this. But it is improving on its own, through the work of those who stayed through the bad years and have fought to make their home a better place. The Borough President needs to fight for small, community-based improvements, so that private individuals, an improving economy, and a decreased crime rate can do the rest. A mega-project like he proposes may be glamorous and provide good PR, but it sucks resources that are better spent elsewhere. What we have here is a project which would make a post-war Robert Moses proud; it destroys a community, creates a barrier between communities and diverts massive amounts of funds for a project that benefits the private automobile more than the community it impacts. All this in the poorest congressional district of the US.

I beg that the Planning Commission consider the needs and best interests of the community and reject this application.

James J Brennan


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