In the poorest Congressional district in the country, the nation’s wealthiest baseball franchise took away kids’ baseball fields.
For six years.
With National Park Service approval.
And it was all legal.
Those South Bronx baseball fields sat in Macombs Dam Park, across the street from the old Yankee Stadium. For years, they hosted home games of nearby high schools as well as neighborhood pickup baseball. Kids too poor to attend a New York Yankees game at least could try to pitch a no-hitter in the shadow of the Bronx Bombers’ aging palace.
Like more than three million acres of public parkland added or improved across the country since 1965, Macombs Dam Park and its baseball fields are entitled to special protection because they received federal grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In 1979, money from the fund helped to pay for the fields, a running track, walkways and new park lighting. By law, parks that receive this funding are supposed to remain open to the public forever or be replaced by land of comparable use and value.
But there’s a catch. The law and the rules that flow from it have no limits on how long it can take to replace a destroyed park once the new acreage is purchased. There’s no hard deadline. And so the kids of the South Bronx waited six years.
During that time, construction crews also obliterated nearly 400 trees that helped clean the air in a neighborhood where hospitalization rates for asthma are five times what they are nationally. The new parking lots, including the one that went on top of the old ballfields, made it much easier to bring more than 3,300 extra cars into the neighborhood dozens of times each year when the Yankees play.
“It’s absolutely shameful,” said Geoffrey Croft, executive director of the non-profit NYC Parks Advocates and the most outspoken critic of the transaction.
The National Park Service official who oversaw the deal, Jack Howard, acknowledged that the baseball fields were way overdue when they finally opened in April of this year – three years after the new stadium’s hoopla-filled opening day in April 2009.
“Sometimes things take a little more time than you’d hope,” Howard said. “We were hopeful things would be done in a timely manner but sometimes there are extenuating circumstances.”
The Park Service, the state and the city also said that the neighborhood got new facilities that are much nicer than the old fields. In addition, the community gained two new playgrounds, two new basketball courts, and other nearby green spaces as well as places to exercise, including the first big waterfront park in the South Bronx, on the Harlem River about a mile from the old parkland.
“The new fields are of unquestionably better utility,” said Zachary Feder, spokesman for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. “They’re top of the line.”
He’s right. No one disputes that after a wait of six years, locals have access to excellent fields. And everyone acknowledges that the old fields had deteriorated under the city’s care, even after receiving federal funds to improve them. Yet even those fields were better than nothing, say neighborhood residents who think they should have been preserved during construction of the new stadium.
National Park Service regulations say replacement acreage for parks should be “immediately acquired and developed according to the replacement proposal timetable.” But there is no hammer to make sure it’s actually useable acreage open to the public. The rules also say that if a replacement project is going to take longer than three years, the local government must notify the National Park Service and offer a justification.
“There is no deadline,” said city spokesman Feder. “If it takes longer than this amount of time you just have to explain. It’s not a rap on the knuckles or anything like that.”
After the city and state went to bat on behalf of the Yankees, the National Park Service allowed the ballfields to go unreplaced for three more years.
“It really is a travesty that has been wreaked on the neighborhood,” said resident Joyce Hogi, who helped organize Save Our Parks to combat the Yankees’ plans and sued unsuccessfully in federal court to try to stop the park conversion. “The officials in this city genuflect before the Yankees.”
“Our last hope was that the National Park Service was going to look after us,” she said.
Six years of away games
All Hallows High School is the closest school to the old ballfields. The school sits in the 16th Congressional District of New York, a largely Hispanic and black section of the South Bronx that for the last three censuses has ranked as the nation’s poorest.
The school, though, is proud of its baseball program, which won the Catholic High School Athletic Association all-city baseball championship not long before the earth movers arrived at Macombs Dam Park.
Yet two classes of All Hallows freshmen graduated without ever seeing their baseball team play a true home game.
For six years the team had to be bused to all its games. In one case the All Hallows Gaels played a “home” game in Staten Island, some 20 miles away, reaching it via New Jersey.
“We were a bunch of gypsies. We played anyplace we could get green grass,” Principal Sean Sullivan said.
The team found one field in a not-too-distant Bronx neighborhood, but stopped using it after asbestos was found, Sullivan said. They tried a field in yet another Bronx district, Sullivan said, but that field “looked like a lunar landscape. We had to move from there because we were afraid kids were going to get hurt.”
The Yankees did give the team two things to help: The first was $37,500 for a bus to travel to games. The other was a giant pitching machine that just showed up one day without any warning, Sullivan said.
“That awful pitching machine,” Sullivan said, recalling he was outside the school just after dismissal when the unexpected delivery came into view on a flatbed truck.
“It was huge,” Sullivan said. “I said, ‘Where the hell are we going to put this? It’s the size of our gym.’ “
It took a more than a year to find someone to take the pitching machine off the school’s hands, Sullivan said.
Efforts to contact the head of the Yankees’ press operation were unsuccessful. A Yankees spokesman, Preston Petri, referred inquiries to public relations consultant Alice McGillion at Rubenstein Associates, who did not respond to phone and email messages.
The delay in opening the new fields remains a sore spot for critics.
Howard, of the National Park Service, rejected complaints that the neighborhood was ignored in the process: “All we did is what we do for any conversion that is brought to our attention. We ensure that the locality (and) the state government that initiated the conversion follow the conversion process.”
“The public had ample opportunity to have input,” he added.
“We make sure the converted area is replaced with property of equal value and equivalent recreational use.”
A legal battle
Whether the replacement land was in fact equivalent, however, was a major complaint in a lawsuit filed against the National Park Service by a group called Save Our Parks in 2006, weeks after the National Park Service approved the deal.
In legal filings, Save Our Parks and a group of neighbors catalogued how they contended the deal violated provisions of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act and regulations that stem from it. Those regulations require replacement parkland to be “of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location.” They also noted that there was no guarantee the city would stick to the replacement schedule, which called for the new ballfields to be done by December 2010, which was already an extension of a year and a half beyond what the Park Service rules specify.
They argued that the Yankees should have to rebuild their stadium where it was already located. That way little or no parkland would need to be disturbed, and the trees would be left intact.
The city said building a stadium as big as the one the Yankees envisioned was not feasible on the ground where it stood. In addition, the Yankees would have had to play in Shea Stadium, home of the Mets, where the Yankees would not collect payments for the advertising displayed at Yankee Stadium, the city, state and Park Service argued.
U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, noting “the high degree of deference” she owed the Park Service under the law, as well as the “rising costs of fielding the Yankees roster,” agreed with the Yankees, the city, the state and the National Park Service. She refused to issue an injunction halting construction of the new stadium, noting that the Yankees already had borrowed $955 million in a bond sale three months earlier. The bond sale happened in the interim between when opponents lost in state court, and when they filed suit in federal court.
By the time she ruled in November 2006 – less than six months after the National Park Service approved the deal – the old ballfields already had been razed and the decades-old oaks cut down.
To this day, Croft, of NYC Parks Advocates, contends the judge got it wrong. He cites the land appraisals done by the city that showed the parkland was being replaced by lands of “equal fair market value,” as required under the law. The National Park Service never looked to see if the appraisals were done correctly, a point Judge Reice acknowledged. But, she said, Park Service regulations require only that the state certify that the appraisals were done in accordance with federal standards. The Park Service is free to check on these appraisals, but not required to do so by the law, the judge ruled.
The opponents are critical of the land appraisals on a number of technical points. But, Croft said, to simplify the argument consider this: The appraisals of the parkland being replaced in the South Bronx came in at $45 a square foot. At about the same time, an appraisal of Central Park in neighboring Manhattan by the Miller Samuel appraisal firm came in at $14,450 a square foot.
“If the purpose of the Land and Water Conservation Fund is to protect those public investments, then, using Yankee Stadium as a case, it was a complete failure,” Croft said.
Jason Alcorn contributed to this report, which was edited by Carol Smith. InvestigateWest is a donor-supported investigative newsroom in Seattle. Support its original, independent journalism for $5 a month or $60 a year.