I arrived at last night’s scheduled town hall meeting on the proposed Bronx NYC F.C. soccer stadium 15 minutes before the appointed 7:30 pm start time, and was greeted by a man informing a crowd of residents, elected officials’ representatives, and press that the doors were closed. “We’re at capacity,” he explained. “A hundred construction workers got on line at 5:30.”
Eventually, enough room was found in the basement community room/cafeteria to squeeze in about 300 people, for what turned out to be an open-mic session presided over by 161st Street Business Improvement District director Cary Goodman. Speakers were roughly split down the middle between pro and con — WINS reporter Holli Haerr said opinion was slightly in favor, while I thought it was slightly opposed, especially if you discounted people from outside the Bronx who’d been invited by NYC F.C. and theYankees — with passions running high, though the only time they actually boiled over was when one local delivered a confused rant about how “capitalism is bullshit” and ended up dragged off by off-duty police officers.
Some highlights of the testimony:
- Several elected officials or their representatives showed up (including one person from council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office, but no one from the mayor’s office unless I missed it), but most chose only to listen. One exception was Javier Lopez, district director for U.S. Rep. José Serrano, who declared: “The Congressman will not support a stadium deal that includes any public subsidies whatsoever. That includes tax loopholes, that includes PILOTs, that includes anything where the city of New York loses tax dollars to build a stadium. In addition, the Congressman will not support a stadium proposal that is not going to be fully transparent from beginning to end, and not have a community participatory process.”
- Representatives of several youth sports teams and other groups that get funding from the Yankees testified what a great partner the team has been, with one talking about how they’ve helped fund local school programs even as the city has cut budgets, and how important soccer is to local kids. There was a bit of a quid-pro-quo vibe to much of this, though, especially when Chad Roberson, vice-president of the New York Urban League Young Professionals soccer league, said, “The New York Yankees organization has been an esteemed partner with the New York Urban League for many decades now. They have given over $20 million to fund our causes,” then added: “All that we ask is that everyone in this room continue to be honest as well as extremely thoughtful with regard to this particular benefit.”
- A couple of speakers countered that a pro soccer stadium wouldn’t actually do much to benefit soccer-loving locals. In response to several speakers who argued that the stadium should be approved “for the children,” Reynaldo Punzalan, who lives down the street from the proposed soccer site, said, “What makes you think that your kids are going to be allowed to practice in the stadium?” And a board member of the Uptown Soccer Academy across the Harlem River in upper Manhattan (possibly this guy, though his name was hard to hear) declared that while he’s a “huge soccer fan,” “the stadium is a terrible idea for soccer fans and all New Yorkers. … Do you know how many soccer fields you could build instead of a 30,000-seat soccer stadium? [My kids] don’t need a soccer stadium; they need soccer fields to play on.”
- Several speakers pointed to the recently announced Kingsbridge Armory ice center project as a better model for development. “The most important question, I think, is is this the best possible use of a piece of city-owned property?” said local resident Killian Jordan, noting that the Yankees stadium project provided a community benefits agreement with dubious benefits: “The only attraction that I can see is the appeal of community benefits, and I don’t think that will have a happy ending. Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice…”
- Greg Bell, a local community activist who was initially opposed to the Yankees deal but later came to support it, offered less ambitious preconditions for supporting a stadium, saying the community should “use the stadium as a wedge to say, look, you have missed some things that we deserve to have,” naming in particular the long-delayed 153rd Street bridge across a railyard to replace one demolished in the 1980s, plus a “world-class restaurant” so “a man can take his lady out to dinner.”
In all, it was certainly enough opposition for the elected officials who’ll be deciding on this project (which decidedly does not include Rep. Serrano) to say it shouldn’t go ahead as announced if they want, or enough support for cutting a deal for them to push forward in that direction if that’s what they prefer. A third option, which seemed to have a decent amount of support in the room, would be to pursue other possible uses of the land (currently occupied mostly by a 1970s-era Yankees parking garage), and see what looks like the best deal for the city and the neighborhood.
One advantage here over the rushed-through Yankees stadium project is that here there’s time to do that kind of research: The only actual plan that’s been developed is a draft document that supposedly is circulating in the city’s Economic Development Corporation, but which I’ve yet to find anyone who’s actually seen. Even NYC F.C. CEO Ferran Soriano has indicated that things aren’t close to fruition in the Bronx, saying last Friday that a deal is “not close” and “if we could play in the Bronx, it will be perfect. But we have other ideas and other opportunities.” That could be partly a scare tactic to try to frighten Bronx officials into grabbing whatever deal they can; but if last night is any indication, many residents are concerned that any redevelopment of the garage site to be done right, not that it be done for pro soccer by any means necessary.