Volume 74, Number 24 | Octuber 13 - 19 , 2004

Villager photo by Jennifer Bodrow

Plans are to renovate the asphalt surface at Columbus Park with either artificial turf or rubber-painted asphalt. The Parks Department is considering using both surfaces as a compromise between Chinatown residents who favor different options.

Keeping asphalt may be answer to Chinatown turf war

By Ronda Kaysen

The feuding factions of the Columbus Park turf war may soon strike a truce, but there is little hope either side will ever make nice and play together. With a meeting slated for next Wednesday between local elected officials, the Parks Department and the proponents and opponents of synthetic turf, all sides have agreed on one thing, at least: a compromise is imminent.

Funded with $1.1 million from Joe Temeczko’s estate, the Parks Department originally hoped to restore the 2.76-acre park, located on Baxter St. between Bayard and Worth Sts., by replacing the asphalt ball field with an artificial, grass-like turf. The synthetic lawn surface, a more costly option than the Friends of Columbus Park-favored rubber-painted-asphalt option, was selected by the Parks Department for its minimal maintenance.

One possible compromise is a combination turf-asphalt park, with a turf ball field in the center of the park surrounded by rubber-painted asphalt. The batting cages may also survive the renovation.

Temeczko’s seemingly generous offer has caused much strife within the community. A Polish immigrant who fought for Poland in World War II and settled in Minneapolis in the 1950s, Temeczko changed his will after 9/11 and left $1.4 million to the city when he died in late 2001.

Friends of Columbus Park and Columbus Park Exercise Group have both resisted the renovations, fearing the park will face stiff hours-of-operation restrictions, limit the recreational activities that can be played there and create a dangerous surface for athletes, children and senior citizens who exercise there.

“There will be so many restrictions that we won’t have these events anymore,” said Paul Gong, president of Friends of Columbus Park. Gong fears the Parks Department will enforce use restrictions on a synthetic turf field, preventing water balloon fights, basketball games and picnics. “It changes the whole fabric of our neighborhood,” he said. He also worries that the resident rats will die in the turf and create an unpleasant stench.

Gong suggests replacing the old and damaged asphalt with new asphalt covered with rubber paint. “We would love to see a beautiful asphalt field,” he said, citing the park at Seward Park High School on Grand St. as an example of a park with a rubber-painted asphalt top.

On the other side of the turf war sits Paul Lee, a Chinatown resident who until recently ran a family business in the neighborhood. Lee welcomes Temeczko’s gift and the possibility of artificial grass, insisting that the soccer, baseball and football players will benefit from a softer surface. “I just want the best facility for Chinatown,” he said.

Asphalt, even with a rubber surface, is still asphalt, argues Lee. “It’s paint on asphalt,” he said. “You tell me if you want your children falling down on asphalt or on the surface that the Jets, Giants and Mets use.”

The Jets and Giants play on artificial turf but the Mets play on grass.

“It’s become a protracted discussion,” said Richard Ropiak, chairperson of Community Board 3’s parks committee. C.B. 3 passed a resolution in June urging the city to hold off on any reconstruction until at least July while the two sides hammered out an agreement. “We would hate to lose the money, maybe [the Parks Department] could find another park in Board 3,” he suggested.

At this point, Parks has no plans to change course. “We’ve been working with the community for months to meet everybody’s needs and that’s our goal here,” said Ashe Reardon, a spokesperson for the Parks Department.

After months of haggling — Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller announced the donation and renovation plans more than a year and a half ago — the two sides will sit down for a negotiation session next week to discuss a compromise.

Councilmember Alan Gerson, who has been involved in the negotiations, expects a positive resolution. “The aim of this is to come up with a plan that serves the best possible cross-section community,” he said.

Despite Gerson’s optimism, neither side expects to be pleased with the end result.

“It doesn’t serve Chinatown to have a compromise,” said Gong.

Lee, whose small alliance has dwindled in recent months, is even less hopeful. “I expect to be totally railroaded and totally ignored at the meeting,” he said. Lee suggested passing the gift to another park entirely, echoing the sentiments of Ropiak of C.B. 3. He recently sent letters to Bloomberg and Bill Castro, the Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, urging them to find a different park entirely. “I don’t want us to be remembered,” Lee said, “as the community that when a guy from the goodness of his heart gave us this wonderful gift, we bastardized it into this mess.”

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