Parent-fans out in authority’s ballfield plan


By Skye H. McFarlane

The Battery Park City ballfields will be feeling the safety squeeze over the next two years, as both spectator and playing space will be temporarily cut to allow for construction on two adjacent sites.

The Youth Committee of Community Board 1 met Tuesday night with parents and officials from the Downtown baseball and soccer leagues to discuss all of the details related to the fields, the construction and the future of active recreation in the neighborhood.

Committee chairperson Paul Hovitz began the meeting by stressing that the fields will remain open throughout the construction of residential buildings on Sites 23 and 24, which run along the western side of the ballfields block. Over the summer there was a threat the fields could close for two years for safety reasons.

“They’re open,” said Vincent Licata of the Downtown Little League, referring to the fields. “But they’re squeezing us and they’re squeezing us.”

Under the new plan, the baseball fields will be flipped starting this spring, putting the backstops on the West St. side of the fields and farther from harm’s way. The developer, Milstein Properties, will also install a solid safety fence and netting to keep debris off the fields, closing off the spectator area and a narrow strip running through the playing space.

If blowing debris becomes an issue, as it was in Teardrop Park during the construction of Tribeca Green and the Verdesian, additional safety measures will come on line. On Wednesday, Leticia Remauro of the Battery Park City Authority said that a second, portable fence would be set up to push players farther from the construction, closing off more of the field. In the event of a severe wind advisory, the fields would close, just as they might under rainy or snowy conditions. Remauro said that wind-blown debris would not likely become an issue until the spring of 2008, when building crews will be working higher above the ground.

David Feiner, a former leader of the Ballfields Taskforce who now works with City Councilmember Alan Gerson, urged the community not to stop fighting for what it wants simply because the B.P.C.A. has agreed to keep the fields open.

“Personally, I think it’s so wrong. You shouldn’t just accept what’s being said here,” Feiner said. “They [developers and city agencies] beat us at the details because that’s their full-time job.”

The biggest bone of contention is the placement of the fencing and the incumbent amount of space that will be lost during construction. On Oct. 10, Feiner, Community board member Jeff Galloway and Downtown sports league officials met with the B.P.C.A. and Milstein’s construction site management company, LiRo, to discuss the changes.

Remauro said that the solid fence will be placed three to six feet west of the walkway, except at the northern reaches of the fields, where it may cut off as much as 14 feet. Downtown Little League president Mark Costello said the secondary fencing could extend as far east as the midway point between the foul lines and the pitchers’ mounds. He said he walked off the area at the Oct. 10 ballfields meeting.

Remauro denied there was any discussion of how far out the fence would go. She said that any fence movement would be determined by the B.P.C.A. and the leagues, not by LiRo or Milstein.

Both sides agree that no matter where the fencing is placed, some playing space will be lost along with all 25,000 square feet of the walkway and spectator area. Under Costello’s worst-case scenario, 5,000 square feet of playing space would go behind the fence, reducing the 90,000 square foot site to 60,000 square feet for a period of about two years.

The spectator areas, including league storage and concessions, will eventually return on an elevated platform attached to the new Battery Park City community center, which will occupy the lower floors of the Milstein buildings. The platform will sit atop new dugouts and the fields will return to their current size and position once construction is completed. The platform may or may not include the small grassy area that the leagues currently use for pre-game warm-ups.

League officials told the committee that there is no concrete plan for where spectators will sit during the construction process — a revelation that elicited gasps from parents in the crowd. For the games of younger children, parents could likely squeeze in along the margins of the field, but when the older kids play, family and friends may have to watch through the fencing that bounds the fields on Warren, West and Murray Sts.

“Parents are going to have to suck up a lot of pain in the next two years,” Costello said. “They want you to stand on West St. for two hours looking through the fence.”

All parties involved agreed that the Oct. 10 walk-through had brought about some compromises. The authority agreed to remove some of its perimeter plantings to increase playing space and a plan to store equipment on the fields was shelved.

However, no plan has been formed to temporarily replace the lighting along the west side of the fields, which will have to be removed to accommodate excavation on the construction site. Costello said that 20 percent of Little League games are played under the lights and that soccer uses the lights even more.

In a letter to the B.P.C.A., sent two weeks ago, the Ballfields Task Force asked that the lighting be addressed. The letter also requested that the B.P.C.A. open up the square of grass at the corner of West and Warren Sts. The grass, which abuts the B.P.C.A.’s maintenance building, is currently fenced off from the rest of the fields. In addition to the queries posed in the task force letter, some committee members wanted assurance that the large safety zone planned by the developers will not be used instead as a construction staging area.

Remauro said that the B.P.C.A. was in the process of considering all of the community’s requests and that there had been no final decision on any of the field details. She said that the authority was “working diligently” to come up with a final plan as soon as possible.

“I can’t tell you tick, tick, tick what’s going on because we’re not finished with all the requests,” Remauro said, stressing that the construction will eventually improve the fields’ amenities and give residents a long-desired community center. “Our mission is to have good, safe seasons of play while the community center is being built…The key word here is safe. The authority is spending considerable money to keep the fields open during this time and we consider it to be money well spent.”

The committee said it would give the B.P.C.A. a few more days to respond to community concerns, but if progress is slow, they will bring their issues to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose district includes part of Battery Park City.

“We will call upon all of you to stand up and be counted,” Hovitz told the parents in the room. “We have a friend in the speaker.”

The committee also addressed the long-term growth of the Downtown sports leagues, saying it would pass a joint resolution with the Waterfront Committee to identify other spaces that the burgeoning leagues might use. The leagues already use East River Park, Coleman Oval on Monroe St., and Baruch Park, but getting permits for those spaces and others—especially for practices — has been difficult in the past. The B.P.C.A. has also consistently denied the idea of permitting games in Rockefeller Park. With rosters that top 600 kids apiece, the leagues have traveled as far as Central Park and Governor’s Island to accommodate games.

At the Waterfront Committee on Monday night, Costello expressed anger that the Hudson River Trust was unwilling to make the small turf field-to-be on the new Pier 25 available to the leagues.

“We went to the Trust and were told you’ll never get a kid on there,” Costello said.

After the meeting, though, the Trust’s Connie Fishman told the Downtown Express that the Trust would allow practices on the field and if C.B. 1 passed a supportive resolution, the Trust would consider allowing T-ball games as Costello suggested. C.B. 1 had previously ruled against organized games on the pier.

“If the community wants to change that basic premise, we are happy to look at it,” Fishman said.

The long-standing “turf vs. grass” debate also surfaced at Tuesday night’s Youth Committee meeting, but most committee members agreed that that issue will have to wait until the current, more pressing, concerns about the ballfields are resolved.

“Now’s the time to fight this,” said local parent Courtney Brennan, referring to the spectator and lighting issues. “Otherwise, they are going to come to us and tell us it’s too late.”

With reporting by Josh Rogers