By Christopher Alvarez and Gabriel Sandoval, THE CITY
A major undertaking to remediate contaminated soil under several baseball and soccer fields in Brooklyn has dragged on for nearly a decade, testing the resolve of a local community still recovering from the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.
And it’s getting worse before getting better: In late July, a chain-linked fence emerged around one of the few remaining open spaces at the Red Hook Recreation Area on Bay Street, sealing off the public for at least the next 18 months.
Until recently, locals and athletes enjoyed the space’s track, basketball and handball courts, and four baseball and three soccer fields — especially after the state’s COVID-19 lockdown order was lifted and outdoor activities resumed last year.
“It’s supposed to be done,” Tony Harrison, 58, a Red Hook resident, said of the park overhaul work.
But, he added, “It’s going on and going on.”
On Wednesday, the city Department of Parks and Recreation was set to formally announce its latest step in the four-phase, $109 million project to clean up and reconstruct the fields with artificial turf on the sprawling 58-acre park, where lead smelting facilities operated in the 1930s.
The announcement was set to be among the first moves by newly appointed Acting Parks Commissioner Margaret Nelson, who replaces Mitchell Silver.
The closure of the track and other recreational spaces marked the beginning of the third phase. Phases one and two ran into delays, causing the simultaneous closure of most of the city-owned land’s 15 fields: nine for baseball and six for soccer.
All but two soccer fields on Bay and Clinton streets are currently shuttered.
The final phase of construction isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2023.
‘An Epic Inconvenience’
Locals and track users question why the Parks Department didn’t make better plans so that the majority of the fields wouldn’t be shuttered at the same time. They also say they didn’t know about the latest closure until seeing the fence encircling the track.
“I think the coordination was really, really poor,” said Creus Hamilton, an athlete and track coach who’s used the track since 2011. “The communication outside of just having a piece of 11-by-8 paper posted on the fence was also really poor.”
Marlene R., 29, stopped by the field to run on Monday, but she couldn’t due to the construction work and the green tarp-covered fence blocking the track.
“I took an hour to come here and to workout, and I’m just frustrated that I’m not going to be able to do that now, and I have to find somewhere else to go,” said Marlene, who asked that her last name be withheld.
Sports leagues and community groups that have long utilized the space for recreational activities are now being redirected to obtain permits for nearby parks, according to Parks Department officials. Hamilton, who lives in Crown Heights, said his nearest track is now McCarren Park in Williamsburg, nearly seven miles from Red Hook.
A Parks spokesperson told THE CITY that the agency planned to stagger the phases to avoid concurrent closures, but ran into setbacks in the initial phases.
Capital projects were put on pause in 2020 due to the pandemic, and crews hit a snag in 2019 when they found an underground fuel storage tank requiring removal.
Each phase has a different contractor, the Parks spokesperson noted, and the agency decided to go forward with phase three even though the previous phases were delayed.
The department, over the last six years, has held “quarterly community update meetings to provide new information and go over the plans to remediate and reconstruct,” the spokesperson.
According to Parks, the agency is helping leagues and organizations with sports permits to find other spaces to use. For those seeking a permit or in need of assistance, Parks said the field and permit office is available to help at (718) 965-912.
Some ballfields closed to the public in 2012 after environmental scientists discovered lead. Three years later, more fields were shuttered as Parks and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began phased remediation of the Red Hook Park.
In June 2017, the EPA informed park users that they could expect phase one, comprising four ballfields to the west of the Red Hook Recreation Center, to be finished by fall 2019. Construction began in September 2018.
But the fields aren’t expected to be completed until September, according to Parks.
The EPA previously projected that phase two — a ballfield and a soccer field to the south of the center — would reopen in spring 2021. Construction for phase two began in September 2019. But it isn’t expected to be completed until spring 2022.
Ivory Mills, a resident of the nearby Red Hook Houses, the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn, walked his chihuahua Max near the closed track on Monday.
“We don’t even know what to worry about now,” he said.
He listed an array of community concerns, ranging from the pandemic, vaccinations and his grandchildren returning to school, to a lack of parking, ongoing construction and a pattern of gas outages at Red Hook Houses. He said he suspected the renovation work in the area would lead to the displacement of local longtime residents like himself.
“They’re fixing this area up, not for us. They’re gonna find a way to get rid of us and they’re going to continue on what they’re trying to do,” Mills said. “That’s what most people, on the low, that’s what they really think.”
A $550 million resiliency project to fix damage Superstorm Sandy inflicted on the Red Hook Houses won’t be done until at least 2023, according to the NYCHA. Meanwhile, residents complain that the work is loud and intrusive.
The closure of the track and other recreational spaces, where Mills used to walk his dog, represented just the latest blow to the neighborhood, he said.
“I could deal with it a little bit, but my dog can’t,” he said.
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