Thursday, March 30, 2006

"It's Porkball for Yankees and the Bronx" NY Times 03/30/06

It's Porkball for Yankees and the Bronx

By JOYCE PURNICK in New York Times, March 30, 2006, Metro Matters Section

WELL into a City Council hearing this week on the proposal for a new Yankee Stadium, one of the lawmakers recalled why he and his colleagues were there in the first place. "The name of this here issue is not black, not white, it's green," said the councilman, Thomas White Jr. of Queens.

At least someone in that Council chamber got it right. For most of the afternoon on Tuesday, the long, emotional hearing resembled more of an encounter group than a legislative session.

It got so heated that it was often hard to figure out exactly what Council critics of the team's plan really wanted, so avidly did they take advantage of the setting to rail at the Yankees.

"You're smiling as if you hit a home run, but from where I sit, it is a foul ball," Councilwoman Helen Diane Foster of the Bronx told Reggie Jackson, a special Yankees adviser who testified in support of the team's plan for a new $800 million stadium.

Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn, the former Black Panther, dropped in long enough to deliver one of his familiar diatribes. "This is not about baseball, this is about trust," Mr. Barron said, asking the team president, Randy Levine, how many "people of color" held decision-making jobs with the Yankees but cutting him off before he could fully answer.

It kept on like that for hours — pointed exchange after pointed exchange, with attempts at peacemaking mixed in. "I'm for people of color, I'm a man of color," Mr. Jackson said, offering to help the Bronx community deal with the Yankees and its mercurial principal owner, George Steinbrenner. "I'm at your service," he said, exchanging business cards with Ms. Foster.

Shortly after that touching moment, Councilman White made his reference to greenery — the financial kind, because this is a development project, after all. The Bloomberg administration and the Bronx borough president, Adolfo Carrión Jr., pronounce it a good deal, while Council critics — probably not enough of them to stop the project in a vote next week — disagree.

Lawmakers could have examined basic issues on Tuesday, but emotions got in the way. At times, it seemed as if the baseball team had become the convenient target for anger and frustration about fundamental problems that still plague the Bronx.

DESPITE improvements in recent years, the borough is still, as Bronx lawmakers kept saying, troubled by high rates of poverty, unemployment and poor health.

Surely not even the harshest of the Yankees' detractors could think that a baseball team has the ability to eradicate poverty and urban disease, although the team is an oasis of wealth, celebrity and power, and Mr. Steinbrenner has a history of playing hard and fast with the city. The result is resentment.

But there are some obvious concerns, though not examined in any depth. Council critics of the plan want the Metro-North station renovated to discourage driving and favor creating fewer parking spaces (though the stadium neighborhood is flooded with cars on game days right now).

They also want more parkland to compensate for the 22 acres that would go to the new stadium, and more job guarantees. The team has committed to making sure that at least a quarter of the plan's construction jobs and new permanent jobs go to Bronx residents.

There is another avenue of suspicion, unexplored on Tuesday but discussed plenty around City Hall: the Yankee plan for community resources, specifically how they will be distributed, and to whom.

The team would provide, in each of 40 years, $700,000 in cash grants for community organizations, $100,000 for maintenance of parks in the stadium area, $100,000 worth of equipment for youth and sports groups, and 15,000 Yankee tickets for the community.

A nonprofit group headed by a "person of stature," as Mr. Levine put it, would determine who gets the team's largess. The group would be made up of people selected by the Yankees and Bronx elected officials.

To help sell the city on its stadium plan, the Yankees felt compelled to hire the lawyer for the Bronx Democratic organization, Stanley K. Schlein, and a consulting group headed by the former Bronx Democratic leader, Roberto Ramirez. So there is some understandable concern around town, not just in the Bronx — about what would, if it were government money, be called pork.

As the councilman said, the name of the issue is green, even if reduced to the inevitable black and white.



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