On February 14, New York City’s Franchise Review Committee gave the go-ahead to plans that would put the future of Randall’s Island ball fields in the hands of 20 private schools. The 20-year contract guarantees prep students school-day playtime from 3 to 6 p.m. on most of the city-owned fields. For this privilege, the schools will pay $52.4 million, which will go a long way toward providing the $70 million required for the renovation and new construction of the sports areas.
The island is home to a jumble of municipal buildings as well as 400 acres of greenspace. In1998, the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation developed a masterplan to make better use of the land. “Full realization of the island as a park never took place,” explained city parks commissioner Adrian Benepe. “When landlocked private schools first started to go out to the fields, they were almost all unused.” He lauded the new proposal as an enterprising public-private partnership that not only maintains, but also expands the number of baseball, softball, football, soccer, cricket,and rugby fields on the island, bringing the total from 36 to 63. Currently at peak usage times, the private schools’ athletics programs occupy two-thirds of the fields; the remainder is shared between public school kids and adult leagues; all fields are open at off-peak hours. The plan has raised hackles because some see it as a step towards the privatization of public space. Manhattan borough president Scott M. Stringer was the sole vote against the project, and city councilor Melissa Mark Viverito is also opposed.
Access to the island has long been an issue. Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr., resisted the proposal last year when it came before the committee, but was swayed in favor when bus service for public schoolers (with the Department of Education) was added. Benepe believes the underwriting is an opportunity and not precedent for funding the rest of the city’s parkland.