Volume 17 • Issue 25 | Nov. 12 - Nov. 19, 2004

Yer out! Adult softball ejected in park plan

The sports area of Chinatown’s Columbus Park, seen here last month, will be half-asphalt and half-turf under a recent compromise reached between residents, the Parks Dept. and Councilmember Alan Gerson. The new field will no longer be large enough for adult softball. (Downtown Express photos by Jennifer Bodrow)

By Ronda Kaysen

Heeding the advice of King Solomon, the warring factions of the Columbus Park turf war agreed to divide their baby in two, repaving half of the aged ball field with synthetic turf and the other half with rubber-painted asphalt.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson announced in a Nov. 3 press release the Department of Parks’ decision to repave the south side of the 2.76-acre ball field on Baxter St. between Bayard and Worth Sts. with 88 feet of rubberized asphalt, which will be used for four volleyball courts and half basketball courts. The remainder of the field will be paved with synthetic turf for soccer and softball, but it will not be big enough for adult softball leagues. The existing monkey bar gym will be moved to another location.

“We feel great about it [the agreement,]” said Manhattan borough parks commissioner, Bill Castro. “It was a great compromise and it works very well.”

Anther park official was irritated that the dispute took so long to resolve and some in the neighborhood who favored turf said the compromise was even worse than an all-asphalt field would have been because it will be hard to play sports on the entire area with two different surfaces.

Paul Lee, a Chinatown resident and advocate for artificial turf, ceased attending Columbus Park renovation meetings in protest and was thoroughly disappointed with the compromise. “Don’t tell me there was a compromise; there was no compromise with me,” said Lee. According to Lee, he was not invited to the various Gerson-steered meetings. “This is a total sham… You invite people, you reach out the community.”

Lee is not alone in his disappointment. Jeanie Chin, a board member of nearby Chatham Towers, did attend the final community meeting, on Oct. 18, which led to the community consensus. The mediation process, she said, was not evenhanded at all. Mediated by Gerson, Chin felt the requests of Friends of Columbus Park, a group that opposed the turf surface, overshadowed community support for turf. “This process was very unfair,” she said. “I don’t believe it was a mediation.” Gerson, she said, favored the position of Friends of Columbus Park despite community opposition.

According to Chin, the community support that swayed the final decision is not nearly as widespread as it appears. Chatham Towers board members, for example, voted unanimously in support of a complete artificial turf surface for the ball field, and were disappointed by the outcome. “It is a tremendous loss for our community that we have lost our playfield,” she said.

Gerson said before the final agreement was released that a split field was the best solution.

“It was clear that while people may have differed in the specifics, the consensus supported a mix use of turf and asphalt,” Gerson said two weeks ago. “It will optimize the variety of activities that can take place.”

He did not return calls for comment after the agreement was announced.

The combination of turf and asphalt, said Lee and Chin, does not honor the wishes of the late Joe Temeczko, the Minneapolis resident who bequeathed $1.1 million to New York City in the wake of 9/11. “It’s a total disregard for the spirit and the will of Joseph Temeczko,” said Lee.

Temeczko’s will included a donation to the city, but it was Mayor Mike Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller who decided to use most of the money in Columbus Park.

The ball field’s new design will not accommodate adult-sized softball and soccer games, according to commissioner Castro, an outcome that disappointed many supporters of artificial turf. “Is this the best possible park?” said Danny Chen, who moved to Chatham Green when he was a child 41 years ago. “I don’t know that it is.”

Both Chen and Lee said splitting the field was worse than making the field all-asphalt or all-turf.

Currently, various city agencies including the F.B.I. and the District Attorney’s office play softball on the ball field. John Gonzalez, commissioner of the Columbus Park Softball League, has been playing at the park for six or seven years. The league has been playing there for 20 years. “I’d hate to see it go,” he said. “A lot of people come to see our games.”

Whatever the outcome, Gonzalez insists the park is in need of a renovation. “They have to redo it,” he said. “The park is sinking. Everything is collapsing.”

Although Gonzalez also favors an artificial turf surface to the hard, asphalt surface he currently uses, it appears that the new design will not accommodate his team. “The field has never been big enough to play a full-scale adult game,” said Castro, who at one point was a member of the City Council team. “We had a lot of fun,” he said of his years playing softball.

Castro is currently looking for an alternate location for the adult teams, one with a full-sized, turf field that will better accommodate the teams. Calling the decision a “win-win” agreement, Castro said that now the park will be available at all times to the local community and the adult ball players will eventually have an adequate field — one that may require a commute, however — for their games.

Paul Gong, president of Friends of Columbus Park, was more satisfied with the final agreement — although he too has his concerns — and called the plan “a good idea for Chinatown.” Gong has led a community campaign resisting artificial turf on the grounds that it is not in the best interests of many of the local residents and that it is expensive and difficult to maintain. He and his supporters have consistently advocated a rubber-painted asphalt surface instead.

Although better than a fully turfed field, even a partially turfed field has its problems, said Gong. “The future of Chinatown really lies in whether or not the Parks Dept. can maintain the turf,” he said, citing concern that in the event of an economic downturn, the Parks Dept. would abandon its promise to maintain the field.

Turf is no more expensive to maintain than asphalt, said Castro. Both require minimal maintenance, involving mainly the collection of litter and, for turf, the periodic grooming of the blades. “We see no problem in maintaining the turf,” said Castro. “Many parks have artificial turf.” Natural grass, on the other hand, is difficult and costly to upkeep.

Even a well-maintained surface does not eliminate another potential problem Gong fears: shortened park hours. “It is important that the park not be closed,” he said, referring to his frequently stated concern that the Parks Dept. may enforce hours of operation restrictions typical in other parks to protect the turf.

“People have brought up several things that we never have spoken about before,” said Castro. Park hours are flexible and based primarily on the needs and desires of the community, said the commissioner. In general, the Parks Dept. reaches out to the local Community Board for their input regarding park hours. “I told the community that we should set the hours together… I’m very flexible.”


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