Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Un-Greening of Detroit: Artificial turf, limited public access on deck for site of historic Tiger Stadium (Part 2 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) 

2015 was an eventful year in the debate over the future of Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium. In Part 1 of our three-part series, we explored the recent land transfer of Navin Field to the Detroit Economic Development Corporation.

With the Detroit Police Athletic League set to take over Navin Field later this year, the NFGC is thrilled to see children get the chance to continue playing baseball on this historic site. But the debate continues over the definition of "public access" and the controversial plan to tear out Navin Field's natural grass and replace it with artificial turf.

As we've noted here before, that is not exactly a popular move.

While some in the mainstream media are finally paying attention to this critical moment in Detroit's resurgence, too many others are simply skimming the surface. 

In the second installment of our three-part series, we take a closer look at the controversy surrounding public access to Navin Field and the prospect of plastic grass replacing a venerable and viable green space in the heart of Detroit's historic Corktown district.

Feb. 4, 2016

Federal money earmarked for preservation could instead fund demolition of Detroit's historic Navin Field 

Artificial turf set to replace green space at site of old Tiger Stadium

When Detroit PAL CEO Tim Richey appeared before the city's Planning & Development committee, he pledged to retain the authenticity of the site.

"We're very excited about this opportunity to redevelop what we know is an iconic location in the city of Detroit," he said. 

And it is indeed exciting that children will continue to play ball there. But Detroit PAL's proposal, in fact, retains very little authenticity of the site. Today, the only remnants of historic Tiger Stadium are the flagpole in center field and the natural grass that has graced the corner of Michigan and Trumbull since 1896. 

That grass, voluntarily maintained since 2010 by a local mailman named Tom Derry and the volunteers of the Navin Field Grounds Crew, has hosted dozens of youth baseball games for six magical summers. 

And it is magic because it is authentic.  

But soon the grass could be torn out and replaced with artificial turf. 

Since 2010, Navin Field has been widely hailed as a natural, national treasureBut if PAL proceeds to tear out the grass, it effectively obliterates a viable and venerable green space in the heart of historic Corktown — and it ruins its reputation as a bonafide tourist attraction

A misuse of federal funds?

Senator Carl Levin's 2009 $3.8 million federal earmark, which is set to expire on October 1, calls for the preservation and redevelopment of a public park on the site of Tiger Stadium.  

But in fact there is little preservation in Detroit PAL's proposal to redevelop the site.

In response to pleas from Corktown residents and other local activists, Detroit PAL CEO Tim Richey has agreed to allow some public access to Navin Field.

"We will offer at least 15 hours per week of free access to the public," he told City Council. 

But how appealing will that access be if Navin Field becomes a sea of plastic?

"I think there's a huge case to be made to keep this natural grass," said City Councilman Gabe Leland"You can't put a value on that field."

City Councilman Gabe Leland

"I think there's a huge case to be made to keep this natural grass." 
—Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland

Despite those concerns, however, the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy voted this week, 7-2, to transfer the remainder of Senator Levin's federal earmark (approximately $3 million) to Detroit PAL. 

'We have decided to choose a synthetic turf surface' 

PAL's insistence on artificial turf for historic Navin Field stems from its plan to heavily program the site, with 10-14 hours of daily activity, including football, soccer, lacrosse, and baseball.

"Our intention has always been to program this site heavily," Richey says. "We want to maximize the usage of the site." 

And with such heavy usage of the historic field, Richey contends that natural grass simply can't withstand that amount of activity, that grass simply isn't as durable as artificial turf.

But to support his claim, Richey cited a typo-riddled 2010 Cal-Berkeley study that focuses mainly on the safety of crumb rubber infill. 

"These fields result in little, if any, exposure to toxic substances," the report reads.

The study contains little primary research, however, and was sponsored by a consulting group that represents artificial turf manufacturers

But with the more recent reports of soccer players battling cancer, 
Congress is calling for an independent study on the safety of crumb rubber. 

Still, Richey pledged not to use the controversial infill at the Tiger Stadium site.

"We do know that there is quite a bit of community concern and national concern around the use of the rubber pellet infill," Richey said. ​"That rubber pellet is what's caused a lot of the concern around the synthetic surface as it relates to potential cancer risk.​

​"The safety of the children is of the utmost concern for us. It always has been; it always will be. I'm happy to say  and can say definitively today  that we will seek out the very best infill for the surface, and that the rubber pellets will not be included in the surface at old Tiger Stadium."

Detroit PAL CEO Tim Richey

ubber pellets will not be included in the surface at old Tiger Stadium."

—Detroit PAL CEO Tim Richey

"Programming more than 20 hours a week is going to cause damage to the [grass]." Richey told City Council, "I think the studies will show that the safety of the turf, as it relates to injuries, is equal if not better [than] the natural grass."

But according to a study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, injury rates for ACL sprains and ankle sprains for NFL games played on FieldTurf were higher than rates for those injuries in games played on real grass — and the differences were statistically significant.

Richey says the long-term maintenance and cost will be reduced with the use of synthetic turf.

"Over the course of 10 years," he says, "it's much more expensive to manage."

But plenty of well-known, reputable studies effectively debunk that myth.

According to Texas Multi-Chem, a prominent national sports field contractor, maintenance costs over a 10-year period (a generous estimate for an artificial turf lifespan) come to 
$558,909 for natural grass, and nearly $1.4 million for artificial turf.

GRASS                                ARTIFICIAL TURF 
$558,909                              $1.4 million

And that doesn't take into account the very real possibility of buyer's remorse.

On top of all that, PAL CEO Tim Richey has repeatedly cited Michigan State University turf expert Dr. John Rogers to support PAL's position that artificial turf is what's best for the Tiger Stadium site.

But Rogers, no fan of artificial turf, has expressed serious reservations about PAL's plan for the field.

As for the historic flagpole, the only actual remnant left of Tiger Stadium, Richey says that PAL intends to keep it.

"We're gonna [shine] up that flagpole," he told City Council. "We're gonna make it a beacon for those of us who remember Tiger Stadium."

City Councilman Scott Benson

Councilman Scott Benson then raised an intriguing question:

"Is there an opportunity," he asked, "to remove that sod and place it at another baseball field in the city of Detroit?"

"I think that's a very creative idea," said Matt Walters, of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's office. "We will certainly work with PAL and the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy to explore that option."

Benson further suggested reaching out to the Detroit Tigers to see if they'd be willing to preserve some of the old Tiger Stadium sod at Comerica Park

"I'm happy to look at how the field can be reused," said PAL CEO Tim Richey. "The only concern I would have is the expense of lifting the field and moving it." 

And so the debate continues over the future of historic Navin Field.

For now, at least, the grass remains the same.


  1. These are huge issues and regardless of how you feel about grass or artificial turf, the community is going to lose a beautiful green space where many enjoyable things happen including local people getting together to play pick-up baseball. Will the community be essentially locked out of its own park or have to pay a hefty fee to use it? Let's keep in mind that PAL currently has 35 other fields in use.

    1. The above is my post as a member of the Navin Field Grounds Crew.

  2. If PAL plans to " heavily program the site, with 10-14 hours of daily activity, including football, soccer, lacrosse, and baseball." why don't they just pick another site from the thousands and thousands of acres of now-empty land in Detroit, instead of demolishing the only baseball field with more than a hundred years of baseball history?

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