Youth Groups Fight For Access to Playing Fields
Who has access to the Lower East Side’s public playing fields and under what circumstances? These are questions that have come up time and again over the years. But as both youth and adult leagues steadily expand and demand for playing time grows, the issue has come to the forefront once again.
Last month, Parks Department officials appeared before a Community Board 3 committee to explain how they go about scheduling the playing fields in East River Park, Sara D. Roosevelt Park and other locations. They were specifically asked to address concerns that too many organizations from outside the neighborhood have too much access to public facilities on the Lower East Side.
Chris Davis, deputy chief of recreation, portrayed the department as understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the crush of applications that must be evaluated. In part because the department cannot “start from scratch” every year, Davis explained, groups who already have playing slots are given “first dibs” when field assignments are being made. This “grandfathering” policy also creates greater continuity, he said, since “it helps to have an ongoing relationship” with permit holders.
Davis told members of CB3’s Parks Committee that schools are given first priority, followed by youth programs and, finally, adult programs. The department does not take into account whether an applicant is based in the community or whether it is a “for-profit” or “non-profit” group.
Earlier this year, CB3 passed a resolution that stated, in part:
…virtually all… locally based not‐for‐profit sports providers have been turning families away simply due to an overall field shortage… community‐based not‐for‐profit leagues chartered to serve every child, affordably and inclusively, have at times been crowded out by corporate and adult recreation, by private schools from other areas, and by for‐profit sports providers which charge upwards of $400 per player with no provision for financial aid in needy cases… the lack of available play times is also the result of existing Parks policy that “grandfather” permits for older leagues and organizations, leaving too few for newer organizations; THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that Community Board 3 asks NYC Parks Department to revisit the policy of grandfathering permits to certain organizations; AND FURTHER BE IT RESOLVED, that Community Board 3 supports priority consideration for not‐for‐ profit organizations serving the youth of Community Board 3 for use of athletic fields within the district.
During last month’s meetings representatives of numerous neighborhood youth sports organizations spoke out about the situation. Tony Rivera noted that his group, Our Lady of Sorrows Church, has been running sports leagues, largely for low and middle income kids, for 54 years on the Lower East Side. In spite of the fact that the leagues are rapidly growing (they serve 500 kids), their allotted field time has remained essentially the same. Rivera said adults from “uptown and Wall Street come in to our community, where they don’t belong.” Although he supports the “grandfathering policy” because Our Lady of Sorrows benefits from it, Rivera called on the city to give prederence to local groups.
Matt Penrose from “Groupstage,” an adult and youth program, said the application process is bewildering and lacks transparency. Although it is possible to apply for a permit online, there’s no way for the public to know what time slots are available on which fields. During the weekends, he said, it’s not uncommon to see empty playing fields, in spite of the fact that the Parks Department’s antiquated computer system indicates the time slot is booked by a permit holder.
Mark Costello, former head of Downtown Little League, said “for profit leagues” are becoming big business in New York City. “There’s nothing wrong with that if you are rich,” he said, implying that less well off kids are being shoved aside.
Davis urged residents and league organizers to let the department know when they see abuses of the system. Given his staffing situation, he said, on site enforcement is difficult. Davis also told CB3 it is unrealistic to expect the department to reserve fields in each neighborhood solely for groups in that community. Steve Simon, another Parks official, disputed the contention that non-neighborhood organizations monopolize Lower East Side fiaciilities. But he told community board members the department would try to assemble a list of the biggest permit holders.
While it was not a major topic of conversation during the meeting, several of the youth group representatives we’ve spoken with in recent months have been anxious to find out how playing time would be divvied up at Corlears Hook Ball Field. The field was recently refurbished, using a $2 million grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. Downtown Little League, a West Side group, initially applied for the grant. Four years ago, there was great consternation because CB3 was not notified by the Parks Department nor the LMDC that the grant had been awarded for Corlears Hook.
In an email message earlier this month, Bill Martino, Downtown Little League board chair, told us he did not know whether his group would be receiving permits at Corlears Hook. The organization had “merely applied online for permits through the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation,” he wrote, adding “I believe other groups have applied for permits as well and we may not get time on this new field.” Susan Stetzer, CB3’s district manager, said she has been told applicants have been advised of their assignments at the new field. Unsurprisingly, Downtown Little League was granted some time slots. But other groups, including Our Lady of Sorrows, won permits, as well, she said.
As for the broader issues, CB3 will revisit the playing field topic during its November 10th committee meeting, but Parks Department representatives are not expected to be present; they may return in December to continue discussing the issue with board members. At the upcoming meeting, CB3 will consider a resolution calling on the city to charge “for-profit” groups to use playing fields. Currently, the city waives fees for all youth organizations.