Turf Wars


On a recent weekday evening, as fans swarm into Yankee Stadium for a home game, a small group of current and former South Bronx community-board members go to check on the area’s newest park. Built by the city at a cost of $1.5 million on a plot of mapped parkland that’s been used as a Yankee parking lot since the 1970s, the spot is meant as a temporary replacement for the 80-year-old Macombs Dam Park, obliterated last summer to make way for the Yankees’ new taxpayer-subsidized stadium.

Just getting to the new park proves half the battle: The most direct route, through Macombs Dam Park, is now a construction site; the next likely candidate, through a vestigial extension of the old park adjacent to the current stadium, is blocked by new fences erected earlier this summer. That leaves the visiting delegation to wend its way beneath the Macombs Dam Bridge approach, skirting lines of cars parked on the sidewalk by Yankee fans.

At the new park, the old parking-lot gates turn out to be padlocked shut; those on foot can walk around them, but anyone in a wheelchair will be out of luck. Inside, a track skirts the edges of a single field shared by soccer players and a softball game. Where Macombs Dam Park was grass (often threadbare from the pounding of soccer cleats), here the turf is an artificial substance called tufted nylon that is a slick, plasticky green—”like dead Christmas trees,” remarks former Community Board 4 member Anita Antonetty. Long seams are readily apparent: Peeling one up reveals that, unlike the FieldTurf that is increasingly used on the city’s athletic fields (which rests on a several-inch-thick base of composite rubber), this turf has only about a quarter-inch of padding to cushion park users from the asphalt underneath.

Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates, who has visited the new park several times, says that on three different occasions, he measured midday turf temperatures in the new park at more than 140 degrees. Natural grass, by comparison, not only tends to cool the air above it, Croft notes, but “mitigates dust and particulate matter”—important, he says, for a park that sits under a heavily used roadway in a neighborhood known as “Asthma Alley.”

Then there’s the smell, which park users describe as a chemical stench that’s particularly noticeable on warm mornings. “A lot of people are complaining that they tend to cough a lot when they’re down there,” says Joyce Hogi, a volunteer member of the Board 4 parks committee and a vocal opponent of the stadium project. Croft blames the park’s underpinnings, which incorporate fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal for electricity. Though it commonly includes traces of heavy metals and even radioactive materials, fly ash isn’t regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and is commonly used as a substitute for cement.

There are fewer gripes about the track surface. (“It feels softer than that turf,” snorts Antonetty.) The complaint here is the proximity to the ballfields. “The first time I walked on the track,” Hogi recalls, “there was a baseball game going on, and I had to actually catch a baseball to keep from being hit.”

Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión, asked whether he’s satisfied with the temporary park, says that “bumps in the road and inconveniences” are inevitable with every construction project, and points to the $160 million in new athletic fields slated to open in the area by 2011. (In fact, only $87 million of that city money will go to build parks; the rest will be used for such items as moving a water main and demolishing the existing stadium.) Parks Department spokeswoman Jesslyn Tiao says the city has received no complaints about either smells or flying baseballs, though she admits there may be problems if people play pickup baseball on fields designed for softball. The padlocked gates were a mistake, she adds, possibly the result of a contractor who unwittingly locked them, and will be remedied.

As for the turf, Tiao says it’s AstroTurf PureGrass HPG, a new product that’s been “acclaimed for its durability.” (Unlike the softer FieldTurf, though, PureGrass hasn’t been approved by FIFA, the international soccer federation , for use on community soccer fields.) As with putting a running track cheek-by-jowl with ballfields, the turf choice was a consequence of having to squeeze the activities of a former 11-acre park into a space measuring less than three acres—the only available land not being used for Yankees construction.

Despite the problems, in fact, the new park is heavily used—so much so that some neighborhood residents say they avoid it on weekends because it’s too crowded. “Nobody expected it to be so utilized,” says Robert Garmendiz, Board 4’s current parks-committee chair. He is blunt in his assessment of the already battered turf field: “That thing’s not going to last.”

How long it needs to depends on when the permanent field is ready, and that’s anyone’s guess. A new track and soccer field—this time with FieldTurf—is slated to be built atop a parking garage on the site of the current ballfield just north of the existing stadium. After first insisting that a private developer would build this and two other planned garages—with the help of a $70 million state “capital subsidy”—the Bloomberg administration has since turned to a complicated arrangement involving a nonprofit shell company that would use city bonds for the project, then share parking fees with the city. (The addition of city-backed bonds is one reason that the total taxpayer cost of the stadium project is now an estimated $799 million.) The city Industrial Development Agency, which was set to issue the garage bonds earlier this month, delayed the vote after Carrión un
expectedly raised questions about the deal, and has yet to reschedule it.

Many locals were already skeptical that the new park would be ready by the spring 2009 target date, noting that the temporary park only opened this May—after promises that it would be in place before the demolition of the old park began last summer. Even Garmendiz, who is generally positive about the parks department’s efforts in his neighborhood, says there’s “no way” the new track will be ready by spring 2009.

Given the trade-off between rushing the garages through and waiting longer for a permanent park, Hogi knows which option she prefers. “Frankly, I would like to see the garages not be built,” she says. “I don’t want to see anything else come into the community that is of no benefit to the community.”