Turf War

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New York City’s smaller islands offer a bit of a headache. For every Rikers Island or Hart Island, which fulfill their functions ably—the city’s prison and potter’s fields, respectively—there is an Ellis Island, which provoked a legal dispute between New York and New Jersey that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Or a Governors Island, which nobody seems to know how best to utilize. Or a Randall’s Island, which, despite all of its advantages, is mostly known for controversy these days.

The most recent chapter for Randall’s Island unfolded last month in state Supreme Court, when Justice Marilyn Shafer rejected the latest iteration of a deal sought by the city that would give a consortium of private schools primary access to playing fields. Shafer ordered the concession to undergo the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) and said that the city must pay the attorney’s fees of the petitioners in the lawsuit, a group that included various local community and educational groups, most based in East Harlem and the South Bronx.

Before & After

Shafer’s language in her decision was particularly harsh. She found that the respondents (the city and the Parks Department) tried “to flout and undermine the purpose of ULURP,” using “an argument demonstrating more daring than logic.” She called other supporting arguments “preposterous” and “misplaced, counter to public policy, and without gravitas.”

“The law is the law, and it says that when you’re going to change the use of public land you have to go through [ULURP],” said Norman Siegel, one of the lawyers for the petitioners.

Randall’s Island is no stranger to controversy. Several years ago, the city announced plans to allow a private company to open a large recreational water park on the island’s northern side. Local opposition was gathering strength when the project was canceled because of funding problems.

In January 2008, a private school deal similar to the current one was rejected by Shirley Kornreich, another Supreme Court Justice, largely on the same grounds. As with the current proposal, the agreement would have offered priority access to Randall’s Island playing fields to a group of private schools that included Chapin, Buckley, Dalton and Brearley, in return for $52 million over 20 years. The money would have been paired with additional Parks Department funds to pay for an extensive reconstruction project.

Rather than submit the proposal to the land use review process, the city and the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, which operates the land for the Parks Department, put together a new accord. The deal they eventually struck and tried to enact last summer guaranteed access to half the fields during after school hours for the private schools, this time for $44 million over 20 years. Public schools and other groups could apply to use 40 percent of the fields during the same time.

According to Siegel, some efforts were made to reach a compromise after Kornreich rejected the initial agreement, but no tangible results were ever reached.

“There were discussions,” Siegel said. “I was brought into some of the discussions, but they never really went anywhere. The Manhattan Borough President tried to intervene and come up with a compromise, but it never reached any sort of an agreement.”

Borough President Scott Stringer still argues that community needs should be better incorporated in the deal. In a statement, he said: “I fully support the court’s decision to include community input. Throughout the city—and in Manhattan especially—this type of open space is rare, a precious resource for the public. We need to make sure that the fields on Randall’s Island are able to be enjoyed by all students, regardless of what school they attend.”

East Harlem Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito echoed those sentiments.

“My position has been that the amount of work on Randall’s Island merits additional review,” she said in a statement. “It should go through ULURP. I think that this court decision really validates what the community and myself have been saying.”

Baseball fields still under construction. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Most crucial to the city’s hopes in the new proposal was the claim that the arrangement would fall under the “currently existing use” clause of the Rules of the City of New York, which allows major concessions to bypass the land use review process as set forth in the New York City Charter.

Geoffrey Croft, the President of NYC Parks Advocates, a petitioner in the suit, argued that only cosmetic changes separated the new deal from the initial one.

“This was exactly the same thing,” he said, “except instead of using parkland all throughout the island, they were claiming they did not have to go through ULURP because they were using parkland that had already been allocated for their purposes.”

Shafer’s decisive rejection of the city’s claims constitutes another victory for the neighborhood groups that have fought the city for several years now over this issue.

“As was determined in the decision, the East Harlem community was denied the legal right to be informed and involved in the renovation and construction of a large parcel of public land within its district,” Marina Ortiz, president of East Harlem Preservation, another petitioner, wrote in an email.

“The larger question is, should public parkland as a policy allow for people who can pay for the use of public land to a disadvantage of people who cannot pay?” Siegel said. “I want to make it clear: We are not opposed to the 20 schools having access to Randall’s Island. The question is whether they’re being given an unequal advantage because they are wealthy.”

For its part, the Parks Department released a statement from Commissioner Adrian Benepe: “We disagree with today’s ruling as the Randall’s Island sports field redevelopment project would expand access dramatically for public school athletes and community-based organizations during the prime after school hours, supply millions in private investment to support this public park and its fields and fulfill the Parks Department’s mission of providing venues for fitness and respite in every community.”

Amid such arguments, there remains a crucial distinction that is often obscured. Both recent court cases only applied to the proposed deal providing usage of the Randall’s Island fields to private schools. The renovation project itself has not been legally challenged and is now nearing completion, even without the input of private funds. The vast changes, involving renovated fields, new turf and improved roads and infrastructure, are apparent to anyone who remembers the old Randall’s Island of threadbare fields scattered with broken glass and avian droppings.

And if a deal for private school funding can’t be worked out, it is unclear who could be left holding the tab for this work. The Law Department and Parks Department both referred questions to each other, but did not respond when pressed for additional information.

Another significant development last summer was the opening of a $16 million tennis center on the island that also bypassed the review process, this time without challenge.

“Small community groups don’t have the resources to tackle multiple things,” Croft said. “By the time we found out about the tennis concession, it was already under construction.”

The root of such conflict, as usual, is buried within the eternal issue of field space in New York City, where eight million people struggle for equitable athletic opportunity in an area that simply cannot accommodate them all. This problem has touched many parts of the city beyond Randall’s Island, and will undoubtedly continue to do so as long as teams continue practicing in hallways, schoolyards and on fields that have been divided repetitively into smaller patches of turf. And schools, which typically sponsor the most athletic squads, will always struggle for guaranteed access.

According to Susan Amron, deputy chief of the city’s Environmental Law Division, everyone who sought a permit for field access on Randall’s Island last fall got one. The city is currently receiving permit requests for the spring.

For now, the proposed arrangement between the city and the private schools sits in limbo. Siegel plans to file a legal motion “very soon” that would force the city to appeal Shafer’s decision or begin the land use review process within 30 days. The process, which typically takes six to eight months, would send the deal for review and approval to Community Board 11 in East Harlem, City Council Member Mark Viverito, Borough President Stringer and the Department of City Planning.

Farrell Sklerov, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said that the city is reviewing all its legal options, including appealing. Siegel believes the case will eventually end up in the Appellate Division, something opponents hope will not come to pass. Ortiz said she would welcome negotiations for a compromise, and Croft said further legal proceedings would not be beneficial for either party.

There may yet be room for negotiation. In response to an email query, Amron, from the Law Department, wrote, “We are always willing to consider reasonable bases for resolving disputes.”

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