Can’t Play Ball at East River Park? Change to Permit System on the Way

East River Park, East Village, New York City 1Vivienne Gucwa East River Park

During football season, Julian Swearengin’s Downtown Giants have three practices each week at three different parks: Chelsea Waterside Park, the Battery Park ball fields and Pier 40. Games take place at East River Park on Saturdays. Confused parents frequently end up at the wrong location and players complain about the hectic schedule. Just to add insult to injury, Mr. Swearengin sees a solution to the problem most nights from his apartment with a view of East River Park.

“There are many nights when soccer and football fields are empty. On the same night, my kids are wedged into a corner on Pier 40,” said Mr. Swearengin, the founder of the team for kids up to 15 as well as a former coach. “There’s certainly an overall frustration that there’s no consistency with the permits.”

But soon, the system that maddens Mr. Swearengin and many others will likely be reformed. For the first time since 1999, the Parks Department has proposed changes to its permit system, raising hopes that the vise-like grip many leagues have over coveted ball fields may be loosened.

If the laws are approved, youth leagues applying for new permits will be given priority over all other applicants. The Parks Department will also have the right to reduce the hours of field time for adult leagues that dominate a particular park.

The proposals are in part a response to complaints from an assortment of league administrators at meetings around the city. In Community Board 3, around 20 league operators have bemoaned a permit system that they described as obscure and ripe for abuse.

“We are turning away hundreds of kids because we still have the same permits from 10 years ago when we had half the kids,” said Tony Rivera, the finance director of the 53-year-old Our Lady of Sorrows Little League, which holds the fourth-most number of permits in East River Park. “We see adult leagues using more space, and we wonder how they’re increasing and growing and our ability to gain more space is capped.”

Last year, the Parks Department issued 2,233 permits for ball fields during 50,808 time slots. Under the current system, permits can be “grandfathered,” meaning they are renewed in perpetuity if no problems arise. Given the popularity of sports and the permit’s price — only $16 an hour — holding one can mean big bucks.

baseball in central park north meadow-11Guney Cuceloglu A baseball game in Central Park.

“The problem is that people have a permit and they hoard it,” said Al Morales, the president of the United Athletic Association, an adult league that is the top permit-holder at East River Park. Some leagues hold onto fields even when not planning to use them for fear that alerting the Parks Department to an available time would lead to losing the slot permanently, he added. “If people knew that they could return the permit and get it back, that would probably cut down on the hoarding.”

Still, Mr. Morales expressed some concern that the changes in the system could possibly push out longtime permit holders — the other adult league he founded, Yorkville Sports Association, has organized games for 33 years. But relative newcomers to the scene are keen for any changes that might loosen the grip of the old guard.

“Unless you strike gold there’s no chance you’re going to get field time. It simply doesn’t happen,” said Matthew Penrose, the founder of Group Stage, a casual soccer league for kids and adults. “While we appreciate the field time we have secured, we’ve come to feel that the Parks Department is not in charge of their own permit process. Instead there are those of us that spend an inordinate amount of time fighting for scraps while others get just about anything they want.”

Mr. Penrose was hopeful that the coming reforms might help put an end to that struggle. “Some organizations won’t be in existence anymore, and someone else will be using that time,” he said, describing current abuses of the system. “We’ve encountered groups that are organized under the name of a person who acquired the permit many years ago, but who that original permitee is, no one has any idea.”

The public hearing about the proposed rules change is on Jan. 26, and it’s doubtful the reforms will be a panacea for the system, which during the peak season is managed by four people for all of Manhattan and has a feeble enforcement system.

“There isn’t going to be an enormous change. People with permits will by and large continue to have them, it seems,” said Mark Costello, a former president of Downtown Little League. “The idea is a good one, to articulate a mild priority for youth sports for times when it makes sense. Philosophically there is a lot of good thinking going on here.”

Liam Kavanagh, the First Deputy Commissioner for the Parks Department confirmed that the proposed changes would better distinguish between new applicants and those that have had permits for many years. The shift in record-keeping would presumably shed light on the programs that dominate the ball fields. The changes would also, he said, codify the importance of youth sports.

“The rationale for giving youth leagues priority is that kids, for the most part, are most likely to play sports as part of organized leagues, and that they are less able to travel to other parks or communities and play in the late evenings, unlike adult leagues,” Mr. Kavanagh wrote in an e-mail.

But for many league administrators, the most pressing problem with the permit system is its lack of transparency. Indeed, The Local had to file a Freedom of Information request to get the permit database for Manhattan in 2007 through 2011.

Applicants complain that they are usually in the dark about who controls a ball field at a given time, and typically have no way of knowing what times will be available next season. Both longtime permit-holders and newcomers said that making the permit database accessible to the public would cut down on abuse of the system.

Tobi Bergman, the Parks Department’s former chief of recreation for Manhattan and now Community Board 2 parks committee chair, said that ideally, a person passing by an empty field could access the permit database from a smartphone to see who should be using it. “If I go out to a park and no one is there, I should be able to easily find out who is supposed to be there,” said Mr. Bergman.

That type of technological upgrade isn’t on the immediate horizon, but even a small change could mean a big difference for Mr. Rivera, whose little league caters to around 500 kids, many of whom live in the projects along the East River in the Lower East Side and East Village.

“They can look out their window and see the ball fields. It’s a shame we’re in a situation where they’re seeing other leagues from outside of Manhattan and adults playing on them,” Mr. Rivera said. “Even if there is some minor movement that alleviates the pressures we have and frees up a few fields, that’s a step in the right direction.”

The hearing regarding the rules change is on Thursday, Jan. 26 at 11 a.m. at the Chelsea Recreation Center, 430 West 25th Street between Ninth and 10th Avenues. The proposed changes to the laws can be found here.