In a sometimes-raucous meeting with Greenburgh officials, residents had their say Thursday on plans for an athletic complex on the spot where Frank’s Nursery once stood.
Meeting at the site for more than 90 minutes, some 100 residents vigorously debated—with the officials as well as each other—whether to lease town-owned property on Dobbs Ferry Road to a private sports-management company. In return for a 15-year lease—at annual rents starting at $260,000 and running to $335,000 after 10 years—Tarrytown-based Game On 365 LLC would be allowed to erect an 80-foot-high, $6.9 million domed athletic complex.
Residents will have one more chance to be heard next Wednesday when the full town board will meet an hour early, at 6:30 p.m., to hear final comments before voting on the proposal. They expect to vote on Friday.
Town Supervisor Paul Feiner is pushing the lease proposal. “We want to preserve the town’s right to use this property in the future,” he said. “If we sell it, we don’t have that option any more.”
A formal request for proposals posted on the town’s website and distributed to residents attracted only three bids—including two from would-be buyers. The lone lease proposal was Game On’s sports bubble, which has encountered stiff resistance.
Both supporters and opponents of the plan were on hand Thursday, most of them standing in the onetime nursery’s parking lot as daylight faded to dusk and finally darkness. Critics clearly had a vocal edge, frequently and noisily interrupting presentations by Feiner, Town Attorney Timothy W. Lewis and Assessor Edye McCarthy. Largely skeptical, the residents questioned, among other things, the aesthetics of the proposed complex, how much traffic it would generate and how big a payday the town could expect.
Greenburgh seized the abandoned property, almost seven acres near the Sprain Brook Parkway, more than a year ago for unpaid back taxes. Given the option to sell or lease the land or turn it to town purposes, Feiner embraced the Game On proposal, arguing that the potential for almost $5 million in rental income over five years trumped any sale of the property in today’s depressed real estate market.
But critics like Simon Cohen insist the town is being shortchanged in the deal. In the first year, for example, Greenburgh will collect $260,000 in rent while its tenant, Game On, expects to pocket $300,000 to $330,000 by subletting 7,500 square feet of its space to five retail tenants, Cohen said.
On a website— helpburstthebubble.com—Cohen also asserts that by leasing out the land Greenburgh would surrender an opportunity to collect property taxes on the land instead of paying them. Before Frank’s closed up shop in 2004, Cohen notes, the site had generated about $240,000 in property taxes annually, compared with about $50,000 the town now pays on the idle acreage.
The town assessor, McCarthy, told the crowd that Frank’s had been appealing its quarter-million-dollar assessment when it folded. While the tax certiorari never was resolved, McCarthy acknowledged the nursery had been “overpaying” its taxes. “So for those of you who are using that [tax bill] for a comparison, that is inaccurate,” she said.
She roughly estimated Game On’s “taxes”—which would be paid as part of its annual rental—at about $100,000 to $125,000.
A feisty, at times testy, crowd began gathering well before the meeting’s scheduled 7 p.m. start. Near the doorstep that once welcomed customers to Frank’s extensive crafts and garden shop, residents filled many but not all of the 48 folding chairs that had been set out. Others in attendance, the majority, stood in a broad arc behind the chairs.
Seated or standing, many felt free to speak—often spontaneously, sometimes simultaneously—to both the assembled clutch of town and Game On officials as well as each other. At one point, frustrated by the crowd’s seeming inability to explore topics fully before skipping to a new subject, Jeri Waldman of Greenburgh left her seat and took the officials’ microphone. She urged residents to focus on one issue to conclusion, winning an ovation if not much change in the pattern of debate.
The proposed air-supported structure, or dome, would host 80,000 square feet of artificial turf fields for soccer, lacrosse, baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball and field hockey along with a three-lane indoor track and some hard-court surfaces. In response to a question, Game On’s project manager, Martin Hewitt, said the bubble would rise to a top height of 80 feet. He was less specific about the time the facility would be open. “We don’t have set hours yet,” he said, suggesting only that youngsters would likely be the principal users from mid-morning or after school to mid-evening, with adults closing the dome at about 10.
While critics were the most vocal Thursday, supporters of the plan also spoke up. Lucille M. Conklin, who scrambles to find playing sites as president of the Westchester Women's Soccer League, endorsed the dome. "We play soccer year-round . . . and we are locked out of a lot of fields [for residency and other requirements]," she said.
On the flip side, however, a woman who would not give her name but who was part of several energetic exchanges asked, “Why are we not voting [on the lease proposal]? This is our neighborhood. We pay taxes.”
Feiner said he agreed. “I feel very strongly that the public should have the opportunity to vote on it,” he said. But on a proposal like the dome, he continued, state law “expressly prohibits a vote by the public.”
“For many years,” Feiner said, “I’ve been pushing the New York State Legislature for [broader use of] referendums and initiatives.” Still, he said of Thursday’s gathering, “I’ve always liked these outdoor outreach meetings.”