Turf fight brewing between Asphalt Green and local groups


By Julie Shapiro

A battle is brewing over the Battery Park City ballfields, setting a new community center against an existing one.

Manhattan Youth, which opened the Downtown Community Center two years ago, has long run a summer camp on the B.P.C. ballfields and expects to continue. But Asphalt Green, which is opening a new $55 million community center adjacent to the ballfields in 2012, also wants to run a summer camp.

“[Asphalt Green] certainly made a pitch that they’d love to be able to run a summer camp on the ballfields,” said Jim Cavanaugh, president of the B.P.C. Authority. “And we said, ‘Look, there is a summer camp — we’re not going to displace an existing summer camp.’”

The contract that Cavanaugh signed with Asphalt Green in January does not give the Upper East Side fitness nonprofit any rights to the ballfields, but it also does not forbid them from requesting permits in the future. And while Cavanaugh said Manhattan Youth had a “sacrosanct” right to continue using the fields for three days a week over the summer, it is possible that Asphalt Green could run its own camp on the fields the other two days of the week.

Further complicating the equation is the fact that the authority will soon convert the ballfields from grass to artificial turf. This will open up dozens of extra days when the fields previously had to close because of the weather or over-use. The question, though, is who will get the extra time.

Bob Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, said he had always requested to use the field five days a week for his Downtown Day Camp, but he was limited to three days because the field needed to be watered. Once the new artificial turf arrives, Townley hopes to get the field for five days a week.

“This might be the first issue,” Townley said of the potential clash between Manhattan Youth and Asphalt Green. “There has to be some restraint imposed on them.”

Downtown Day Camp is an important source of revenue for Manhattan Youth and helps the nonprofit to provide free programs year-round for seniors and teens, Townley has said in the past.

Asphalt Green is also counting on the summer camp and other youth sports programs as the biggest revenue driver for its new community center, bringing in $1.8 million in the first year, according to documents Asphalt Green submitted with the contract. The next highest category, membership revenue, would bring in nearly $1.4 million in the first year.

The conflict over the ballfields came up at a meeting between Cavanaugh and Community Board 1 last Thursday. C.B. 1 wants the authority and Asphalt Green to sign on to a memorandum of understanding that would restrict Asphalt Green’s use of the ballfields and limit the subsidies Asphalt Green receives for programs that directly compete with Manhattan Youth and the local nonprofit sports leagues.

Cavanaugh told Downtown Express after Thursday’s meeting that he does not support the draft memorandum’s blunt non-competition language. Instead, he said it would be better to set up an advisory group of community members to weigh potential conflicts when they arise.

Cavanaugh also said it would be difficult to impose additional restrictions on Asphalt Green now that the contract is already signed. If the authority makes more demands — for example, C.B. 1 wants the authority to prevent Asphalt Green from hiring for-profit groups to run youth sports programs — then Asphalt Green would have the right to terminate the contract, Cavanaugh said.

A lot of money is at stake: Asphalt Green is slated to receive about $3 million from the authority during the 10-year contract, and the authority is also building out and furnishing the 50,000-square-foot community center for Asphalt Green in the base of the new Liberty Luxe and Liberty Green residential buildings on N. End Ave.

Christopher Dobens, spokesperson for Asphalt Green, referred questions on the memorandum of understanding to the authority. In an e-mail to Downtown Express, Dobens confirmed that Asphalt Green planned to run a summer camp but said the details are not final. On the ballfields, Dobens said Asphalt Green looks forward to working with the authority “to utilize whatever space is available to best serve the needs of the community.”

The local nonprofit sports leagues are also concerned about competition from Asphalt Green. Although Cavanaugh reassured Downtown Little League and Downtown Soccer League that they would not be displaced, he also said they would not have priority over Asphalt Green and other nonprofit groups in requesting additional time.

“We want to assure they’re being used equitably,” Cavanaugh said at the C.B. 1 meeting. “They’re not the province of whoever was there first.”

However, Mark Costello, a director of Downtown Little League and a leader in the fight for artificial turf, said he had always thought the Little League would get some of the extra available time once the authority converted the fields. Costello is also concerned that Asphalt Green might bring in for-profit groups to run baseball and other programs on the ballfields, as they did on the Upper East Side.

“It has to be very clear,” he said of the authority’s guidelines. “We need to do this now.”

Costello and Townley are both members of Community Board 1.

Another area the Asphalt Green contract does not cover is cultural programming. C.B. 1 wants Asphalt Green to provide space to local nonprofits at a reduced rate, but Asphalt Green has not agreed to that.

“If there’s anything that is still up in the air, if there’s anything they’re still struggling with, it’s the cultural programming,” Cavanaugh said at the C.B. 1 meeting.

Cavanaugh said he expects Asphalt Green to be receptive to the community’s suggestions and consult with a committee of local residents before making decisions. Dobens, the Asphalt Green spokesperson, said the organization is beginning to meet with potential partners.

As Cavanaugh listened to C.B. 1’s concerns last week, he said he is optimistic that the new Asphalt Green center will be a benefit, not a detriment, to the community and the existing programs.

“I really believe both community centers can thrive,” Cavanaugh said. “If they don’t, it is a collective failure on all our parts.”