The controversy over the future of Randall’s Island is not over yet.
Last fall, the often forgotten patch of turf at the confluence of the East and Harlem Rivers fell briefly under the public spotlight when a proposed deal would have given independent schools priority in using new playing fields in return for $45 million toward construction and maintenance costs. That agreement set newspaper columnists and community activists atwitter with indignation, but the outcry died out after New York State Supreme Court Justice Shirley W. Kornreich invalidated the deal for not going through a review process.
Problem solved, at least apparently. But with the first set of fields opening a few weeks ago and the city now picking up the full tab for the project, some observers are not satisfied. Others are nearly ecstatic with the results.
“They’re amazing,” said Robert Herzog, the CEO of ZogSports, the popular adult sports league. “These fields will more than double the capacity for youths and adults to play recreationally at night. The new fields are just beautiful.”
For now, ZogSports will be using one field every Saturday afternoon for touch football, but the organization plans to move most of its outdoor sports to Randall’s Island eventually.
According to the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, a non-profit group that has a private-public partnership with the Department of Parks & Recreation, the current refurbishment is nearly 50 percent complete. So far, only a complex known as the East River Fields consisting of five soccer pitches—three made from artificial turf and two natural sod—is open and in use. It lies near the footbridge at the bottom of Ward’s Island, a southerly neighbor of Randall’s that maintains an independent name despite having long since been joined together by landfill.
According to Aimee Boden, the foundation’s executive director, the early reactions are all positive. She said that improved irrigation allowed the artificial fields to drain in two-and-a-half hours when the remnants of Tropical Storm Hanna passed through the city a couple of weekends ago.
“In the old days, we would squeeze together something wherever we had a patch of grass and call it a field,” Boden said. “These new ones are real, well-designed fields.”
The final plan calls for 63 new fields—11 of them synthetic—along with extensive additions to local infrastructure, new bike paths and improved bathroom and parking facilities. Some of the fields will also have lighting so that play can continue after dark. To top it all off, this summer has also seen the addition of nine courts to the current tennis complex on the island and a renovation of the golf range.
It all adds up to a heady, new era for this spit of land. Long known better for hosting a number of psychiatric hospitals and some fields of very poor quality, Randall’s and Ward’s islands are enjoying a bit of a renaissance now, one that might put them on the map for more than serving as a conduit for the Triboro Bridge. The next step will come in October with the unveiling of another six fields. After 11 years of planning and expectations, by the time the project is complete by the end of 2009, it will increase the playing field inventory of the city by 5 percent. And that could do wonders for a variety of athletic leagues.
The lack of fields “is the single biggest limiting factor to any sports organization,” Herzog said. “There’s such tremendous demand, but there simply aren’t enough places to play.”
Some critics remain upset with the project, however. After the original deal with the private schools fell apart, work continued on Randall’s Island with the city paying the full estimated cost of $150 million. But a coalition of schools and citizens from East Harlem and the South Bronx felt the plans had not received adequate review and filed suit to stop the construction. Judge Kornreich dismissed the case in May, removing one of the final hurdles to the project’s completion.
“It’s a mess,” said Geoffrey Croft, the president of NYC Park Advocates, a non-profit watchdog organization. “It’s an environmental and public policy mess. We’re talking about millions that have been spent on that island over the last six or seven years without any public oversight. There’s no community-based participation or consultation. They never did any type of research to see if these ballfields were needed.”
Croft also said that the new fields destroyed local wildlife and trees on the two islands and that private schools are still receiving preferential treatment under a “pay-to-play” system.
In response, Boden stressed the foundation’s outreach to surrounding youth and community groups.
“This isn’t Chelsea Piers,” she said. “This is a public park. Although we report to Community Board 11 in East Harlem, we also do outreach to the South Bronx and parts of Queens.”
According to Boden, the new fields are available to a variety of groups, ranging from youth leagues to colleges to private and public schools. She also noted that the foundation is creating a salt marsh and restoring wetlands that were damaged when the strait between Randall’s and Ward’s islands was closed. The new marsh is visible just south of Icahn Stadium on the shore facing Manhattan. Boden conceded that some trees were removed during construction but said that ultimately 4,000 new trees will be planted by the time the project is complete.
Next Monday at 10 a.m., the City Council will convene an oversight hearing on some of the issues surrounding the ongoing construction. For now, though, five new fields with some exceptionally springy turf are open for play and will doubtlessly be busy.
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