"Feds advised city, state, Yanks on stadium plan, documents show" MetroNY 08/31/06
Feds advised city, state, Yanks on stadium plan, documents show
by patrick arden / metro new york
AUG 31, 2006
SOUTH BRONX — More than a year before ground was broken for a new Yankee Stadium on Bronx parkland, a red flag was raised at the National Park Service.
The federal agency had paid $422,650 for improvements to an 11.2-acre portion of Macombs Dam Park in 1979, giving it a final say over the project’s use of parkland. By law, any park receiving money under the Land and Water Conservation Fund must remain a park, unless it is replaced with parkland of equal or greater value, “usefulness and location.” Proposed projects must also consider “all practical alternatives” before parks are seized.
Quoting a letter from the city, NPS agent Jean Sokolowski shot off an e-mail to state officials.
“I’m a little concerned,” she wrote in the May 9, 2005, note, which was obtained by Metro through a Freedom of Information Act request. “‘Develop recreational facilities atop two of the garages’ is a questionable LWCF option.”
But whatever concerns the NPS may have had about the replacement park plan soon evaporated, and it waved a white flag instead.
A month later, before the public had learned of the Yankees’ plan, Sokolowski and two other NPS executives traveled to Macombs Dam Park, where they met with representatives from the city, the state and the Yankees. A June 7, 2005, e-mail from the city’s Parks Dept. thanks the NPS officials not only for coming but for their “willingness to work together.” The memo — and most subsequent correspondence — is copied to an attorney for the Yankees.
In an internal e-mail following that meeting, LWCF manager Jack Howard writes the three NPS agents walked away “confident that they will be able to work with the city and the state to ensure that the [federal park-replacement approval] process has been satisfied without it preventing the proposed project from being developed.”
A done deal
As early as March, 18, 2005, NPS official Pat Gillespie appeared to drop all pretense of independent analysis. In an e-mail to colleagues, she suggested, “Maybe they can sell pieces of [the old stadium] to build the replacement park!” Three months before the Bronx neighborhood found out about the plan, she added, “There seems to be community support for this project.”
But a July 19, 2005, memo from state parks official Thomas Lyons painted a different picture, with details of the first public meeting at the Bronx Museum of Arts. “Most of the comments centered around community concerns,” he wrote, noting the “particular interests represented by Community Board 4,” which would overwhelmingly reject the plan four months later.
By that time, though, the NPS had already become an active partner in pushing the plan forward, though it had not seen any environmental reviews or land appraisals. After consulting with Gillespie, Lyons advised the city to include “a specific section within the EIS entitled Conversion of Parkland.” Later the coaching gets more specific, such as when the city is told to jazz up the use of Rupert Plaza as park acreage rather than describing its utilitarian function as a walkway: “Replace ‘pedestrian promenade’ with ‘passive park.’”
Taking their word
Early on the NPS decided to forego its own assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act, relying instead on the city’s Environmental Impact Statement. After that, the NPS agreed to an April 2006 Memorandum of Agreement with the state, the city, the Yankees and Bronx County.
But at that time, Howard had told Metro the city’s plan to break ground in the coming months was unrealistic. He was still waiting to see the state’s proposal, he said, noting that “public controversy” could “adversely impact that proposed action.”
“Some conversions are simple, others can take a year to garner final approval,” he said. “We are aware of what’s going on, but there are no shortcuts. We have a responsibility to follow the law.”
The state’s parkland conversion proposal was finally received by Howard on June 7, but he “would be out of the office,” he wrote in an e-mail. He approved the conversion 10 days later.