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De Blasio Housing Plan Seeks Land Promised as Yankees Replacement Park

City Hall says expansion of Bronx green space was never a formal commitment

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A decade has passed since the city demolished more than 25 acres of South Bronx parkland to build a new multibillion-dollar Yankee Stadium. Yet the legacy of that project, and the contentious park swap that made it possible, now threatens the plans of Mayor Bill de Blasio as he tries to put high-rise housing on a vacant lot beside the Harlem River. After months of controversy, city officials are insisting that the disputed parcel was never promised as parkland — despite Bronx residents’ recollection otherwise.

The land in question is adjacent to Mill Pond Park, which was created on the Harlem River waterfront as part of the Yankee Stadium parks replacement plan. For years neighborhood residents were told the vacant lot, which lies to the south, would eventually be added to the park. The extra acreage was included on the Parks Department’s website, and a sign in the park even featured a map describing the area with the words “Future Park Expansion.”

But in May the de Blasio administration announced a plan to have an as-yet-unnamed developer construct housing towers there with up to 1,045 apartments, plus retail shops and a publicly accessible lawn and esplanade. Half the units would be designated as affordable for households earning up to 80 percent of the city’s median income, meaning a family of four making up to $76,320 a year could apply for residency. (The annual median income in Bronx Community Board 4, where the site is located, is around $26,000.) Some in the neighborhood are preparing to once again do battle with city hall over parks.

“It’s another broken promise,” says Highbridge resident Anita Antonetty, who was secretary of Bronx Community Board 4 when the stadium plan was first proposed. At both board and community meetings, she recalls, city officials spoke of the future addition to Mill Pond Park. The Parks Department’s manager of the Yankee Stadium project, Frank McCue, was among those who promised that the undeveloped parcel would hold a skate park, a kayak launch, a recreational building, and lawn space, she says: “They kept saying, eventually, down the line, when they got the money, they’d finish the park.”

Antonetty and her neighbors still pine for the old parks along Jerome Avenue, which had been the centerpiece of their community. Macombs Dam Park was established in 1897, a quarter-century before the Yankees arrived in the Bronx, and the neighborhood grew up around it. Macombs Dam and Mullaly parks were worn from heavy use — one field was bare, and the grass could often be brown — but they had hundreds of mature leafy green trees, some sixty feet tall. The outdoor space held special importance for families crammed into one-bedroom apartments.

All that was lost in August 2006, when the city closed off the parkland to make way for a new stadium. State law requires the formal “alienation” of parks by the legislature before they can be used for non-park purposes. When Albany lawmakers alienated portions of Macombs Dam and Mullaly parks in 2005, Mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed to replace the green space with a new park on the old stadium site across the street, and with the addition of a set of other parcels elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Locals had problems with the “replacement” parks from the start. In exchange for a unified stretch of parkland, they would get plots of land scattered across more than a mile, with much less greenery and fewer ballfields. One of the largest replacements would sit two stories above street level atop a parking garage, with artificial surfaces and no trees. Small “pocket” parks would be in the shadow of the 4 train’s elevated tracks. A 2.89-acre asphalt ballfield wasn’t even replaced — the city converted it into another garage, insisting the land had only been used for parking cars, though project documents acknowledged it had been parkland.

While the new stadium opened on schedule, in the spring of 2009, the replacement park timeline lagged. The park atop the garage opened in 2010, and Heritage Field, on the site of the former stadium, didn’t debut until 2012. In 2015, two new playgrounds on River Avenue were still undergoing an environmental cleanup. State regulators finally closed the spill on August 11.

Antonetty remembers when representatives of then–Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr. first unveiled the park replacement plan to Community Board 4. Negotiations were still taking place, they said, but the only park on their map besides Heritage Field was a track-and-field facility on top of a garage. The community board voted against the project in November 2005, after which city officials were “suddenly open to discussing more parkland,” Antonetty recalls. “That’s how we got Mill Pond Park.”

Mill Pond Park would be the largest, and most peculiar, chunk of new parkland created in the swap. Located on the Harlem River — a mile away from the parks that were bulldozed — it has a tennis concession that charges up to $105 an hour, picnic spots, a small beach, and an esplanade offering waterfront views. Getting there from the neighborhood served by the old parks takes a hike, across the Metro-North tracks and under the Major Deegan Expressway, to a strip of land built atop five piers.

One of these piers was already slated to become a park as part of another taxpayer-subsidized project: the Related Companies’ Gateway Center shopping mall on the site of the old Bronx Terminal Market. But the Bloomberg administration ended up needing the developer’s waterfront land for the Yankees project, thanks in part to a federal law that brought the National Park Service into the picture.

That law — the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 — required the city to replace a specific piece of Macombs Dam Park that now sits under the new stadium’s Great Hall, food stalls, and right and center fields. The 10.67-acre parcel had received a $302,914 federal grant in 1979 to pay for a refurbished running track, soccer field, and grandstands. According to LWCF rules, any park that has received federal money must remain a park unless it’s replaced with new parks of equal value, utility, and location.

Approval for the parkland swap, then, had to come from the National Park Service. But a month before the June 2005 announcement of the stadium, signs of trouble were already evident. In an email to state parks officials, NPS project manager Jean Sokolowski wrote, “ ‘Develop recreational facilities atop two of the garages’ is a questionable LWCF option.”

The plan was then rejiggered. The city shifted tennis courts from the top of a garage to a planned 5.1-acre Mill Pond Park, previously set to be the site of replacement ballfields. In February 2006, the city indicated that the LWCF replacement parkland would be spread over parts of three parcels — the existing stadium site, a concrete walkway known as Ruppert Plaza, and Mill Pond Park.

City parks officials “didn’t have a lot of acreage to work with,” says Lukas Herbert, an urban planner for Westchester County, who then served on Community Board 4. He co-authored a report that argued Mill Pond Park’s tennis concession wouldn’t qualify as LWCF replacement parkland: The old facilities had been available free of charge, while the proposed replacement was a commercial enterprise catering to outsiders. Yet the tennis concession remained in the city’s LWCF replacement. Today, only four of the park’s sixteen courts are open to anyone with a $100 city tennis permit, though these courts are sometimes claimed by summer camps and schools.

By early 2006, Related had transferred four of the five piers to the city in return for a $2.5 million rent credit. In exchange for Pier 5, the Bloomberg administration gave Related the newly renovated Bronx House of Detention, which the developer tore down. The Mill Pond Park land turned out to be heavily polluted, and the city spent $64 million to build the park — triple its original estimate. When construction stopped on the northern end of Pier 5, Antonetty was told by Parks Department officials the city had “run out of money.”

As built, Mill Pond Park occupies 11.57 acres along the waterfront, extending from a ramp of the Deegan on the north to 150th Street on the south. A decommissioned leg of 150th Street cuts across Pier 5, creating a rectangular plot, north of the street yet on the pier, that’s been identified in de Blasio’s housing plan as “an extension of Mill Pond Park.” Significantly, this land was included in a description of Mill Pond Park submitted by the city to the National Park Service in June 2006. Jack Howard, the NPS’s manager of state and local assistance programs, tells the Voice he can’t remember whether this version of Mill Pond Park had entered into the LWCF deliberations. “They told us they had a plan, but nothing was built yet.” A month ago, Howard asked for an investigation by the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, but he has yet to hear the results.

The state parks office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But at a July 14 hearing of the City Planning Commission, the city Parks Department’s Alyssa Cobb Konon testified that only piers 2 and 3 were ever mapped as parkland: “Piers 4 and 5 were not mapped as parks.” Pier 4 was added to Mill Pond Park as “open space in connection with the Gateway Center project,” Konon said, stressing that it was not part of the Yankee Stadium replacement plan.

A city Parks Department spokesperson says that none of Pier 5 was promised as replacement parkland: ““As is illustrated in documentation from the time, Pier 5 was never connected to the Yankee Stadium Redevelopment Project. Its redevelopment will include two acres of waterfront access space along with residential and community facility projects.”

Yet Adrian Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner from 2002 to 2012, tells the Voice that all of what’s currently built of Mill Pond Park — including Pier 4 and the developed slice of Pier 5 — ended up as part of Yankee Stadium’s replacement parkland. The undeveloped section of Pier 5 wasn’t in that deal, Benepe says, though “it had been envisioned that it might be nice to have a park there one day.”

Under de Blasio’s housing proposal, most of Pier 5, including that lot north of 150th Street, would be leased to a private developer. One plan calls for a 99-year lease, with the developer completing and maintaining the park extension as publicly accessible open space — though it would not be mapped as parkland, leaving it vulnerable to future development.

Such an arrangement opens a can of worms, says attorney John Low-Beer, a former assistant corporation counsel for the city who last June successfully got the state’s Court of Appeals to reject a city-backed plan to build a shopping mall on the Mets’ Citi Field parking lot. That court ruling could also apply to the piece of Mill Pond Park north of 150th Street, says Low-Beer. “If they enter into a 99-year lease of parkland, they need legislative permission.”

Meanwhile, de Blasio wants to spend $200 million on area infrastructure — including new sewer and water lines — to make the Pier 5 development possible. At the City Planning Commission hearing, several commissioners expressed dismay that de Blasio was providing only a “framework” plan, with a generic environmental impact statement and no specific details. (A spokesperson for council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes Mill Pond Park, says she is still reviewing the mayor’s Pier 5 proposal.)

As the mayor seeks to follow through on his pledge to build or preserve 200,000 affordable apartments over ten years’ time, parks have become tempting sites for new housing in congested neighborhoods. A mile and a half north of Mill Pond Park, the undeveloped Corporal Fischer Park has been promised by the city to a builder of low-income housing, and at Second Avenue and 96th Street in Manhattan, the former Marx Brothers Playground is set to become the site of a 68-story apartment tower. In both of these projects, the city has asked the state legislature to alienate the parkland, something critics fear could take the city down a slippery slope.

The City Planning hearing closed with comments from Joyce Hogi of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality. A Grand Concourse resident for forty years, Hogi had been an outspoken critic of the Yankee Stadium parkland swap. She smiled at the commissioners and shook her head. “I’m disappointed,” she said softly. “Sad, really.”

The remaining section of Pier 5 was always promised as a park, Hogi said. “True, we need housing, but if all we’re doing is building housing and not balancing it with parks, we have failed.”

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