Neighbors: SPI plan not sustainable

playland-gateBy LIZ BUTTON, CHRIS EBERHART
and PHIL NOBILE

The chosen plan to fulfill County Executive Rob Astorino’s quest to reinvigorate Playland, the Rye-based historic amusement park, has been the subject of scrutiny from some of the park’s neighbors after they discovered a Costco-sized field house is set to be built yards away from their homes.

The proposed multipurpose field house, the marque moneymaker in the grand reinvention plan, is not only slated for construction without consultation of Playland’s neighbors, it also inexplicably jumped in size once Sustainable Playland Inc., the non-profit chosen to assume control of the park, was selected.

The field house has turned out to be the first issue of a series in which critics allege Sustainable Playland has failed to be transparent in detailing aspects of its plan. They say the non-profit and one of its for-profit subsidiaries, Playland Sports LLC, have failed to directly address concerns over parking, flooding, quality of life and the final size of the field house, whether those concerns have come from Rye residents or county officials.

Playland’s main parking lot, located between the amusement park and a residential neighborhood in Rye, would lose 40 percent of its parking spaces after construction of a proposed 95,000-square-foot field house.

Playland’s main parking lot, located between the amusement park and a residential neighborhood in Rye, would lose 40 percent of its parking spaces after construction of a proposed 95,000-square-foot field house.

“It’s all smoke and mirrors and misdirection,” said 50-year Rye resident George Szczerba. “The only thing that’s missing is the N after SPI for spin because they’re spinning this thing their way.”

At some point between 2011–when SPI submitted its original proposal to Westchester County–and 2013, the size of the field house, which would be used for indoor soccer, lacrosse and other sports, jumped from 72,000 square feet to 95,000 square feet, but, after repeated inquiries, SPI spokesperson Geoff Thompson couldn’t specify when the plan changed further than to tell the  Review it happened “sometime after the original proposal was submitted.”

Thompson indicated that a year-round indoor sports facility is, above all, necessary for the economic viability of Sustainable Playland’s entire plan and the amusement park’s continued operation.

According to Ken Ball, a resident of Adelaide Street and close neighbor to Playland, the current dimensions of the field house, which would stand 35 feet tall with a footprint of close to 100,000 square feet, could house two Boeing 747 jumbo jets, “with room to spare.”

“If the county needs such a facility, the logical place to build it would be on county property at the Westchester County Airport,” Ball said.

SPI, founded by Rye residents Dhruv Narain and Peter Rukeyser in 2010, was created for the sole purpose of turning Playland into a year-round destination.

SPI’s plan would turn Playland into a facility divided into entertainment and recreational zones, including a field zone featuring the field house and two 60,000-square-foot outdoor playing fields. The plan also establishes a permanent home for the Westchester Children’s Museum and creates a water park aqua zone.

The group signed a letter of intent with the Republican county executive in October 2012. At that time, Playland Sports, a for-profit enterprise responsible for the operation of the field house, was one of numerous companies brought in by SPI, some new and some previously established, as business partners. SPI then signed an official asset management agreement with the Astorino administration in July 2013. The agreement states the non-profit will pay the county a base fee of $4 million, followed by annual payments based on the park’s net operating revenue, which is estimated to be $1.2 million per year. These payments would go toward the county’s existing $34 million  debt on the amusement park.

Following the agreement with SPI, Astorino approved the non-profit’s Playland Improvement Plan, an 80-page document released online in September 2013 that further detailed SPI’s plans to redevelop the park. The plan’s release was the first time the revised size of the proposed field house was revealed to be 95,000 square feet instead of the original 72,000.

While the field house is crucial to SPI’s ability to hold up its financial end of the bargain, Thompson said it’s also something the area needs.

The corner of Sanford Street and Roosevelt Avenue is just one area in the Ryan Park Rye neighborhood that could be affected by the proposed field house. Residents from the neighborhood have spawned a movement against the field zone portion of Sustainable Playland’s plan. Photos/Andrew Dapolite

The corner of Sanford Street and Roosevelt Avenue is just one area in the Ryan Park Rye neighborhood that could be affected by the proposed field house. Residents from the neighborhood have spawned a movement against the field zone portion of Sustainable Playland’s plan. Photos/Andrew Dapolite

“This is what the market demands,” he said. “It’s a major element of our plan, the only one that wasn’t weather dependable.”

A group of concerned Ryan Park neighbors launched a petition that garnered 235 signatures against the proposed field house in October 2013 asking the county Board of Legislators to consider their concerns about potential flooding, noise, lights and parking: issues they believe will adversely affect their neighborhood, which abuts the amusement park, if the SPI field house is built as proposed.

In an attempt to appeal to the concerns of the neighbors at a Dec. 11, 2013 public meeting in Rye, SPI answered pre-written questions from citizens, but the meeting was cut short without SPI answering questions not reviewed in advance by the organization.

Parking in and around Playland, another example where numbers from SPI do not add up, has also been an issue for the Playland neighbors.

Because the field house is set to be placed where the current amusement park’s main parking lot sits, a number of spots would be removed as a result. According to Westchester County Parks Deputy Commissioner Peter Tartaglia, the number of parking spots in Playland’s main lot is 2,084.

SPI says there are 2,191 parking spots in the main lot, according to its improvement plan. Also in the plan is a parking map, which lists the main parking lot as having 1,317 spots after the construction of the field house—a 40 percent reduction in spaces in the main lot.

The reduction has neighbors worried about parking overflow into Rye neighborhoods during the busy weekends throughout the summer when the park hosts fireworks shows every Friday of the season.

Playland Sports owner John Abate contends there won’t be traffic issues. He points to the results of an 800-page parking study, conducted in 2013 by John Meyer Consulting, a Westchester engineering firm. Multiple requests during November and December 2013 to Thompson from the Review for access to the parking study were never
granted.

The parking study has since become available on the Rye City government website after its attorney, Kristen Wilson, wrote a letter to the county executive and the Board of Legislators on Dec. 4 requesting the city be granted involvement in the approval process so Rye’s elected leaders can ensure  SPI abides by the city’s local zoning and planning laws. Rye believes it has jurisdiction over such proposed construction since the park sits within city limits.

The parking study, taken on the first weekend in August 2013, calculated the total attendance at the park hourly for two days. On the Friday of the study, peak percentage of attendees did not exceed 38 percent of all available spaces by 9 p.m. On Saturday of the study, peak percentage did not exceed 27 percent of all parking by 6 p.m. However, rain showers occurred on both days of the study, according to the weather history website wunderground.com, cancelling what would have been a high-traffic fireworks show that Friday.

A study was also done when the park was closed on a weekend in March 2013, but the results were never posted to the public.

Despite the incomplete results of the parking study, Abate said the only time traffic issues may arise is during the park’s three busiest weekends, which are Independence Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Mike Visci, a resident of nearby Redfield Street for 49 years, said doing two weekend studies is not enough time to consider a comprehensive parking plan.

“I know the traffic pattern, I know how backed up Playland Parkway gets,” Visci said, adding he often sees illegal parking on his street in addition to the congestion.

“We deal with [inconvenience and annoyance due to Playland’s proximity] from May to September. We don’t want to have to deal with this from January to January,” Visci said.

One of the hallmarks of the Astorino administration has been attempting to find a solution to the financial burden tied to Playland, which county administration officials said runs a $3 million to $5 million deficit annually.

The decision to rethink the amusement park long-term had its roots in the 2009 campaign trail. Astorino, a county executive candidate at the time, campaigned for change at the park and looked to follow through on that platform in 2010. Soon after, he solicited a request for proposals from businesses and organizations interested in managing and modernizing the historic property.

He would ultimately select SPI as his preferred proposal.

“We’d like to see Playland continue from a debt situation to one that breaks even or makes a profit and is an amusement park that attracts families all year. Hopefully it gets done relatively soon working with the new [Board of Legislators] leadership,” Astorino said this week.

The plan awaits approval of the county Board of Legislators, which represents the final hurdle before the non-profit can begin to transform the park.

The Board of Legislators, according to an opinion drafted by County Attorney Robert Meehan, will have to approve any material changes to county property, capital improvements that include the field zone and other projects proposed by SPI.

Even though the Board of Legislators remained a Democratic majority after the November 2013 elections, a nine-member, bipartisan coalition of seven Republicans and two Democrats—Mike Kaplowitz of Yorktown and Virginia Perez of Yonkers—which was announced in December, has enabled the Astorino-friendly Republican minority to gain board control.

Before the last county Government Operations Committee meeting of 2013 on Dec. 17, Legislator Catherine Borgia, an Ossining Democrat and head of the committee, stated it requested an updated parking plan from SPI, which she said the board has been asking for since October, as well as an updated marketing plan and financials from both SPI and the Astorino administration. As of press time, Borgia and the committee have not received any of the requested information.

Before SPI’s plan was selected by Astorino, 11 other proposals were vetted by a citizens committee appointed by the county executive. Former Republican Rye City Mayor Douglas French, along with former county Legislator Judy Myers, a Larchmont Democrat whose district encompassed Playland, were part of a 19-member group tasked with vetting the feasibility of each renovation proposal the county received in March 2011.

French, who left office at the end of 2013 after choosing not to seek re-election, admitted he did not make any special effort to publicize the fact that one of the three conceptual proposals identified by the committee included a 72,000 square foot field house abutting a residential neighborhood.

He said the committee’s responsibility was not to review site plans, but to rate the submissions according to Astorino’s standards for the project’s evaluation: the five-E criteria—economics, environment, entertainment, experience and expectations.

In response to residents and neighbors who said they felt left out of the process by local officials, French said city officials didn’t know about the field house’s change in size to 95,000 square feet until the subject was raised during Rye City Council meetings in October 2013, even though the change was first made public in September withn the Playland Improvement Plan.

“This should have raised flags with the elected officials,” said Mack Cunningham, a former Rye City councilman who has taken up the charge of leading the effort to defeat the field house proposal. “Rather than putting out statements of overwhelming support in the community, they did not do their job. That’s my point; they should have raised this issue early on in the process.”

Not only did the members of the county’s citizens committee with an interest in Rye fail to make the public aware of the scope of the field house, the Rye City Council voted unanimously in support of SPI’s plan in 2012.

“They’re playing this close to the vest, and for our City Council to vote 7-0 twice without knowing what they’re voting for, they sold us down the river,” Szczerba said.

Despite the concerns and requests presented to SPI and all involved parties, officials behind the project remain steadfast in touting the park’s consideration of residents and customers alike. Both Abate and Norm Gill, a partner of Pinnacle Indoor Sports, the consultant and operating partner for Playland Sports, said they have tried to implement an economically and logistically viable plan that takes concerns from all sides into consideration.

“We would not be doing this if we thought that it would be inconvenient for customers,” Gill said. “We need to make this a worthwhile business.”

That is exactly what many occupants of Rye’s Ryan Park neighborhood say they are afraid of: the county, SPI and, until recently, Rye City government are not invested in making sure the Playland reconstruction process is responsive to Rye residents’ concerns and to what is in their best interest.

“How would you like to walk out of your front door and, less than 100 yards away, a giant Costco [sized building] is staring you right in the face. [The field house] would be right out of my front door,” Szczerba said. “It’s a neighborhood killer. This thing doesn’t belong here.”

- With reporting by Ashley Helms

Contact: liz@hometwn.com, phil@hometwn.com and christopher@hometwn.com
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About Liz Button

Liz Button is a staff reporter for Hometown Media Group’s The Rye Sound Shore Review. Previously, she covered Bedford and Mount Kisco for The Daily Voice, an Internet-based, hyperlocal publication. She’s also written for Patch in her hometown of Trumbull, Conn., as a freelance reporter and fill-in editor. Preceding her time there, she worked in publishing in New York City. She is a 2008 graduate of Bowdoin College with a degree in English. Reach Liz at 914-653-1000 x20 or liz@hometwn.com; follow her on Twitter @ryesoundshore.