Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"Stadium Project a Raw Deal for Bronxites" in Norwood News, April 6 - 19, 2006

Stadium Project a Raw Deal for Bronxites

The Yankee Stadium project, which we oppose, has been poisoned by a total subversion of the democratic process. Though the proposal is headed for approval in the City Council as we write this, we believe it’s critical to document how public debate was consistently quashed and how poorly our elected officials have served their constituents.

The die was cast last June when the Yankees and their many political accomplices acted in virtual secrecy to award 22 acres of public parkland to the Yankees. The state legislature voted on a weekend without any public discussion, and community residents didn’t know what had happened until months later.

We are not opposed to development. But development by fiat is a bad thing. It produces bad decisions and this project is replete with them.

First and foremost, this project will take precious parkland for the stadium and parking garages. The city claims the parkland will be replaced, but most of the new parkland won’t be available for at least three years. Some of it will be in far more remote locations than the current continuous oasis of greenery that is the center of a vibrant community. And some of it will be on top of those parking garages. Asking people in one of the most asthma-prone zip codes in the country to exercise on top of a parking lot is obscene. It is also unclear whether these parks will even be available to the public on the 81 days the Yanks play at home.

The Yankees are building an additional 3,000 parking spaces, but their new stadium will have 4,000 fewer seats. Regardless of what they say, they are begging their fans to drive to the stadium and clog up neighborhood streets. This should be filed under “Urban Planning Nightmares.” It’s exactly the opposite of what should be happening.

We were staunchly opposed to the alienation of Van Cortlandt Park for the filtration plant, but at least that was a federally mandated public project. Giving away the parks (not to mention revenue from millions in tax free bonds) to the richest sports franchise on the planet is just lunacy.

For all the talk of the power of the Bronx Democratic organization, it does not know how to exact significant concessions that would benefit Bronxites.

If the organization was any good at dealing, why would Council Members Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Maria Baez, who will undoubtedly fall in line and vote for the plan, have to badger Yankee executive Randy Levine and city officials from 30 feet away in a City Council hearing room about unfulfilled requests for information about parking issues, traffic patterns, and more money to restore the unaffected portion of Mullaly Park? Why didn’t they demand those things a year ago, when they could have used their vote on the resolution that enabled the state legislature to give away Mullaly and Macombs Dam parks to get something substantial? Like keeping parking out of their constituents’ parks.

In all his public comments, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión talks like his dreams of a hotel/convention center, a skating rink and a high school will be poured from the same concrete truck that backs up to the stadium site. But these amenities are not a part of the plan he has shepherded through the land use process. When we asked him about this, Carrión pointed to various plots of land that could accommodate these things, both south and north of the project site. “But is that a plan?” we asked. “There’s plans for it because we say there’s a plan for it,” Carrión said. “That’s how everything starts … These are all things you work to make come together. And I hope that we can make that happen.”

Unfortunately, the Land Use Committee isn’t voting on these hopes.

The sad thing is we’ll probably never know how things could have turned out if our elected officials knew how to bargain. They could have insisted that the Yankees build the new stadium on the site of the old one. Yes, the team would have had to play at Shea for three years, but they survived Flushing just fine in the 1970s. And why is it OK for the neighborhood to be without its parks for that long but such a hardship for millionaires to play baseball 15 miles away?

The Yankees trotted out all-star Reggie Jackson to help make their case at the Council hearing last week. Mr. October admitted the Yankees had a poor record in the community, but absurdly claimed that they could now be trusted.

Council Member Helen Foster, who represents Highbridge and other neighborhoods adjacent to the stadium site, was not impressed. She predicted that as soon as Randy and Reggie left the building, that the bank of television cameras would leave with them. And so they did, leaving community residents, who had waited patiently through three and a half hours of testimony from the city and the team, to listen to themselves talk while Council members flitted in and out of the hearing room.

That’s just one example of how the community has been literally and figuratively airbrushed out of this entire debate.

In a Yankee ad that appears in this newspaper, there is no sign of a community other than Yankee Land. The neighborhood of Highbridge has actually been erased from the picture.

It’s not just the Yankees, though. By his actions and in his words, Carrión has pushed his own constituents to the margins. He had nothing to say when most community residents were locked out of a hearing he held in his own office building. Union members who were bused in early took up most of the seats.

Even more disappointing are Carrión’s comments about the plant’s opponents. He called them “outside liberal agitators” on BronxTalk last month and repeated it on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC radio show this week.

Was he talking about people like Joyce Hogi, a leader of Save Our Parks, who has lived on the Grand Concourse for 30 years? Or what about the 6,000 residents who have signed the group’s petitions, or the dozens of people in the beautiful art deco apartment buildings across the street from the parks who have put “Save Macombs and Mullaly” signs in their windows?

Meanwhile, a March 27 press release faxed from Carrión’s senior policy adviser David Golovner’s fax machine on the letterhead of the New Bronx Chamber of Commerce stated, “The Bronx based community organizations will testify in support of the stadium plan that will bring jobs, business opportunities and much needed new parkland to the neighborhood. This group of organizations TRULY represents the Yankee Stadium neighborhood and the entire Bronx. The real community will stand in solidarity for a new stadium and against outside organizers with agendas that are not beneficial to the Bronx community.”

We called Lenny Caro, the spokesman named on the press release, at his 914 number, and asked him what community groups were supporting the project. “Community Board 4,” he said. But, as everyone except Mr. Caro knows, CB4 voted against the project.

It may be too late to derail this ill-conceived stadium project. (The City Council will have already voted by the time you read this, though another committee still has to sign off on the financing.) But the federal government may slow it down considerably, giving residents more time to sue over issues such as the lack of public notice on park alienation. The two parks were renovated some years ago with federal funding, and the National Park Service will not allow them to be used for something else without a thorough review. That could take months.

Maybe that delay will be enough for the Yankees and the city to take residents’ concerns seriously and begin negotiating in good faith. We’re not holding our breath, but, like the borough president, we can hope.

One last thing. The fact that Oliver Koppell, the Council member who represents Norwood and Bedford Park, supports this project confounds us. All his arguments against the taking of public parkland in the case of the filtration plant ring hollow now. It seems that it’s OK for the city to take public parkland and ignore reasonable alternatives as long as the project is not in his district. Helen Foster was one of the very few lawmakers to vote with Koppell on the filtration plant. You’d think he’d want to return the favor.

We hope that by the time this comes up for a vote in the full Council, he will realize how hypocritical his position is and change his mind.


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