Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Un-Greening of Detroit: Artificial turf coming to site of historic Tiger Stadium? (Part 1 of 3)

LONG GONE? This 9-acre green space and quasi-public park on the site of
Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium could soon be replaced with artificial turf. (Tony Leja)

It's been an eventful year in the ongoing debate over the future of Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium

Despite the Navin Field Grounds Crew's five-year effort to transform the corner of Michigan and Trumbull from a weed-choked, garbage-strewn eyesore to a well-maintained baseball diamond and quasi-public park, the Detroit Police Athletic League is now poised to take over the site in 2016, with plans to limit public access and to tear out Navin Field's natural grass, replacing it with artificial turf.

This is not exactly a popular move.

In the first installment of our three-part series, we examine the recent controversy surrounding Navin Field, complete with video from Detroit City Council ...


At a public hearing before Detroit City Council's Planning & Development committee on November 12, Detroit PAL CEO Tim Richey outlined his organization's plans to build its new headquarters on the Tiger Stadium site (aka Navin Field) and its intent to break ground in March of 2016.

"We're excited to develop a new headquarters for [the] Police Athletic League," Richey said.

As part of the proposed development in the heart of Corktown, Detroit's oldest neighborhood, Richey indicated that PAL plans to retain at least some of Navin Field's historic qualities.

"We were able to ... retain the full dimensions of the field," he said.

Detroit PAL CEO Tim Richey

"Home plate will stay where home plate historically has been. The flagpole will stay where the flagpole has been."

—Tim Richey, Detroit PAL

In the effort to build its new headquarters, PAL has enlisted the help of Kansas City-based architects Pendulum Studios, which plans to replace Navin Field's historically natural grass surface with a substance that the Detroit Tigers and Lions never played on in Corktown: artificial turf. 

Pendulum, it should be noted, is currently working with Rochester-based General Sports to construct a new ballpark in Utica, Michigan, called Jimmy John's Field
General Sports, headed by industry veteran Andy Appleby, recently decided on natural grass for Jimmy John's Field. 

PAL's architect, Pendulum Studios, is constructing a natural grass baseball diamond in suburban Utica. 

Dollars and sense

PAL CEO Tim Richey also announced to City Council on November 12 that his organization had $5.5 million committed toward its Kids at the Corner campaign, which is expected to cost a total of $15.4 million. 

Most of that money, the NFGC has learned, comes in the form of tax credits and grants from various foundations.

According to a memorandum of Detroit's Economic Development Corporation, PAL had until today to reach the $6 million mark. It was unclear at press time whether that milestone had been met.

Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy Chairman Thomas Linn told Council that the remaining $3 million of Senator Carl Levin's $3.8 million 2009 federal earmark could be tacked on to the $5.5 million PAL's supporters have already committed to the project. 

That earmark, Linn said, must be spent by Oct. 1, 2016.

"Our intention is to use the $3 million ... to help fund the restoration that Mr. Richey described," Linn said. 
"We're quite excited about the fidelity that PAL has shown in terms of the history of the site, the dimensions, the flagpole, and so forth."  

But most observers, including nationally acclaimed baseball writer Dan Epstein, author of the cult hit Big Hair & Plastic Grass, and NBC's Craig Calcaterra, argue that PAL's plans don't constitute a true restoration of the field.

OTSC Chairman Thom Linn

"We believe the use of the earmark is consistent with [Senator Levin's] intentions."   
—Thom Linn, Chairman, Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy

And while Linn commended PAL for its efforts, not everyone on the board of the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy is on board with artificial turf

In response to questioning from City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, Detroit PAL CEO Tim Richey insisted that PAL had not yet made a decision on the type of playing surface to be used on the Tiger Stadium site. (That announcement would come later.)

Also appearing before the Planning & Development committee November 12 was developer Eric Larson, of Tiger Stadium Partners, who outlined his group's plans for an adjacent $35-million mixed-use retail and residential development along Michigan and Trumbull avenues, where Navin Field's predecessor, Bennett Park, stood from 1896-1911.

Defending their turf

During public comment, Michael Betzold, a former Detroit Free Press reporter and co-author of the definitive Tiger Stadium history Queen of Diamonds, attempted to put things in perspective for City Council.

"The way the field is now, it's a free, open, accessible community-events space that's entirely made possible by ... the Navin Field Grounds Crew and the efforts of Tom Derry, who was chased away by the cops when he first started mowing the place," Betzold said. "But he kept coming back 
 and if it wasn't for him, you wouldn't have a site worth talking about developing."

Betzold then posed an interesting question:

Michael Betzold
"Why doesn't the Navin Field Grounds Crew have a seat at this table?"  
—Tiger Stadium historian Michael Betzold

Despite the grounds crew's well-documented efforts to restore the historic ballfield, longtime NFGC member and community activist Adam Millikin was disappointed his group didn't have a seat at the big table. 

But in his limited time for public comment, Millikin made clear that the controversial crumb rubber infill in artificial turf does not constitute a healthy playing surface for Detroit's children. 

Adam Millikin

"When we found out that [PAL was] going to replace that historic, hallowed ground of grass with artificial turf, that's when we drew the line." 
—Adam Millikin, Navin Field Grounds Crew

Longtime Corktown resident and community leader Debra Walker also made a case for preserving the stadium site as a community green space.  

"The Corner represents a non-divisive opportunity," she said. "This isn't about a privileged community with massive amounts of green space in lieu of this site, this irreplaceable corner."

Debra Walker

"The Corner is where progress and preservation meet." 

—Debra Walker, Corktown Community Organization

Another longtime Corktown resident, Anthony O'Donnell, who owns a commercial building just steps away from home plate, expressed concern about public money being used for the PAL project and sought clarity on the controversial preservation issue from former U.S. Senator Carl Levin, whose 2009 $3.8 million earmark is still the topic of much discussion. 
Anthony O'Donnell

"I don't see any reason why we can't reach out to Senator Levin and ask him what he meant by historical preservation of the site."  
—Anthony O'Donnell, Corktown resident

At the conclusion of the hearing, the Planning & Development committee resolved to revisit the Navin Field land-transfer issue at their next session, which we'll cover in Part 2 of our three-part series. 

For an in-depth look at the November 12 land-transfer hearing, click on the video below:

Come back later this week for Parts 2 and 3 of our special report on the future of Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Celebrate historic Navin Field Sunday, December 13

Join the Navin Field Grounds and the Detroit Men's Senior Baseball League Sunday afternoon for a spirited game of winter baseball at the site of historic Tiger Stadium.

Not only could this be the first baseball game ever played in December at "The Corner," it could also be the final hardball game ever played there on natural grass 

So bring your friends and family out to the Corner one final time in 2015 and help celebrate Detroit's historic Navin Field.

First pitch is at 1 p.m.