Volume 74, Number 28 | November 17 - 22, 2004

Some turf, not all mirth, in Columbus Park agreement

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 and Recreation’s 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 number 88 was picked because it is considered “lucky by all,” Gerson noted.

The remainder of the field will be paved with synthetic turf for softball and soccer. The existing monkey-bar gym will be moved to another location.

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

Not everyone agrees. 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 to 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.

“It was clear that while people may have differed in the specifics, the consensus supported a mix use of turf and asphalt,” said Gerson in a telephone interview with The Villager.

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.

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, a 42-year Chinatown resident. “I don’t know that it is.”

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 softball 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 — 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 Department can maintain the turf,” he said, citing concern that in the event of an economic downturn, the Parks Department would abandon its promise to maintain the turf.

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 had artificial turf.” Upkeep of natural grass, on the other hand, is difficult.

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 Parks may enforce hours of operation restrictions typical in other parks with artificial turf 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 borough commissioner. In general, the Parks Department reaches out to the local community board for their input regarding park hours. “I told the community that we should set the hours together,” he said. “I’m very flexible.”

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