By PHIL NOBILE
After years of mostly inactivity and minimal involvement with Playland park’s renovation process, the designated committee meant to identify issues between the park and the city was revived after controversy from a key component in the park’s future plan emerged.
The Playland Advisory Committee was revitalized with the hopes of being the voice for many Rye residents who have felt left out of the process to reinvent Playland. Residents across the city have expressed dismay toward county and city officials after it was revealed in September 2013 that a massive, multipurpose field house would be built in the Playland parking lot abutting some residents’ homes.
Sustainable Playland Inc., the non-profit selected by Republican County Executive Rob Astorino to turn the park’s financial woes around, has faced scrutiny from nearby neighbors, who cited a lack of voice in the planning and approval processes.
The city’s advisory committee, which kicked-off its re-emergence at a Jan. 15 meeting in City Hall, will now attempt to assuage those concerns.
“Asking questions is the main issue here. We’re hearing from the community,” recently designated committee chairman Steve Vasko said. “Does Rye benefit in all of this?”
Although SPI is a non-profit 501(c)(3), the organization umbrellas over multiple for-profit subsidiaries like Playland Sports and Pinnacle Indoor Sports, two business partners of SPI who joined the plan when SPI signed a letter of intent with the county in October 2012. The two organizations are in charge of operating the proposed field house and design of the facility. Geoff Thompson, spokesperson for SPI, indicated that the year-round field house is, above all, necessary for the economic viability of the plan, leading many residents to question the motives behind the non-profit.
“I can’t understand the point of [the field house] except to make someone money,” Vasko said.
Comprised of nine Rye residents, the committee was reactivated with the intent of clarifying the problems with SPI’s Playland Improvement Plan and quantifying the potential costs and risks for Rye neighbors. The committee plans to gather the concerns of the city’s citizens and present them to Rye officials.
“I’m hopeful, but I’m apprehensive at the same time,” Mike Visci, a recently appointed committee member and neighbor of Playland said. “We need to move quickly, and government doesn’t move quickly.”
Visci and resident Ken Ball are two recently appointed committee members who expressed concern over SPI’s plans for Playland.
Their main concern revolves around a proposed 95,000-sq-uare-foot field house to be constructed in the corner of Playland’s main parking lot abutting the Ryan Park neighborhood. Described by SPI as a key component to the plan’s financial success, the size of the field house came under public scrutiny after it jumped in size from an originally proposed 72,000 square feet without any explanation after Astorino selected SPI to take over management of the park in October 2012.
Also in attendance at the committee’s first meeting was new Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican, and new county Legislator Catherine Parker, a Democrat who previously served as a liaison to the advisory committee, and urged the group to act fast before intervention would become impossible.
Sack, who was elected mayor in November 2013, told committee members to prepare questions and concerns of the community for the City Council, and advised the committee on what their priorities should be.
“Our goal is to get information and answers, not confront and embarrass people,” Sack said. “That may be a last resort. You’ll have to move quickly or we may miss the boat. If we pick up the pace, we can get with it.”
During the meeting, committee members determined the focus of their operations for the upcoming weeks. By the next City Council meeting scheduled for Jan. 29, the group hopes to bring residents’ concerns before elected officials. The committee also designated liaisons to consult Rye’s parking and traffic committees regarding feasibility questions about the potential park layout.
Despite the fact that a potential vote on SPI’s plan by the county Board of Legislators at the board’s next meeting is a possibility, Parker assured the city’s advisory committee it wouldn’t happen so soon, and suggested a 90-day time frame from the next Board of Legislators meeting on Jan. 27 as a working point for the group. The county board has the final say in regards to any capital work done on park grounds.
“There is a deadline. The board wanted to vote soon, and I said ‘no way,’” Parker said. “I would not say [the board of legislators] is locked in on the plan, but the county executive is locked in.”
Parker, who was appointed to the county Parks, Labor, Planning and Housing Committee, the group currently vetting SPI’s proposal, stressed the need for a broader public discussion in light of the recent controversy, and recommended having at least two public Q&A sessions with all parties involved present.
Former Mayor Douglas French, a Republican, along with former county Legislator Judy Myers, a Larchmont Democrat whose district includes of Playland and the City of Rye, were responsible for vetting the feasibility and impact of the 12 Playland proposals submitted to the county for consideration in 2011. Neither elected official made any particular effort to publicize that SPI’s plan contained a proposal for a field house that could be detrimental for the neighboring community.
“I want to hear from a lot more residents,” Parker said. “All of SPI’s components, such as Playland Sports and Central Amusements, need to be in the room as well. There’s an opportunity there.”
Although Rye City law describes the Playland Advisory Committee as permanent, it has been largely inactive over the past few years.
In March 2010, the committee was reactivated after Astorino campaigned for county executive and won the seat partially on a platform of reversing the park’s financial woes. In addition, another committee—the Playland Strategic Planning Committee—was formed in June 2010 to promote city interests as a request for proposals to reinvent the park was being solicited.
Although the Rye City Council passed a resolution in support of the county’s agreement with SPI in December 2012, outrage over the field house and SPI plan came to a head at a Rye City Council meeting in October 2013, in reaction to SPI’s updated Playland Improvement Plan released to the public the month prior.
The Rye City Charter describes the committee as permanent, even though it has gone largely inactive over the past few years.
According to the charter, the purpose of the Playland Advisory Committee is to “identify, coordinate, and communicate Rye’s concerns regarding Playland,” because Playland’s activities and practices “have a significant impact on the City of Rye.”
-With reporting by Liz Button