The Octagon Soccer Field construction has been postponed, yet again. Now to early fall.
A request for proposals (RFP) for construction of the new Octagon Soccer field – which RIOC abruptly fenced off mid-August citing safety concerns – was originally expected in mid-September but never happened. In an email update, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation's Director of Parks, Mary Cuneen informed a group of concerned Islanders that the field is now slated to open in "early fall," rather than the previous promised July 1.
To date, the field remains fenced off and, other than the new LED lights on the field, no work appears to have been done and users of the field are growing increasingly frustrated. There has been little to no information given to the community, and no effort by RIOC to collaborate with the community on the project.
John Massey, parent of a youth soccer player with longtime connections to the Island soccer scene said, “[RIOC] needs to understand how important the soccer culture is to our community. I still don’t think they get it. The closure has been incredibly painful to the community.”
A Place to Gather
For many Islanders, the Octagon Field serves as more than just a level playing surface. It’s a place where the community comes together in unplanned ways. Groups of parents and kids built snow igloos in the winter, commuters went down in the early mornings to do pre-work calisthenics, there were weekend group workouts and late weekday morning Tai Chi sessions, parents brought their young ones there to take their first steps on the flat, spongy surface, and kids dribbled their soccer balls all the way to the field after school from locations as far flung as Rivercross, Southtown and the Octagon. These types of interactions aren’t just nice, they are essential to a community.
“The field is an integral part of the community. People who would otherwise not meet, come together here to play the sport they love,” says Miguel Pincay, a co-director of the Roosevelt Island Football Association, and parent of a young soccer player.
“This is the place where many parents, coaches and other volunteers come together to cheer on the children from the Island. The soccer field is the place where my son and I have made some of the greatest friendships we have, either playing, coaching or cheering. Anyone who loves this game or loves anyone who loves the game, definitely knows that the soccer field is a vital part of the community.” Roosevelt Island Resident Association President Lynne Shinozaki agrees, "My son lived there growing up. Every Roosevelt Islander should have that access."
That access shaped Leo Folla, lifelong Island soccer player who now coaches Island youth. He recently played with Härnösands FF in Division 2 Norrland in Sweden and is one of many Islanders whose time on the Octagon Field has led to competitive play.
According to the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA), green spaces create close-knit communities, which increases safety.
In these close-knit communities, according to STMA, residents know their neighbors better, socialize more often together and have stronger feelings of community. Communities with trees and green spaces have lower crime, decreased police calls for domestic violence and decreased incidences of child abuse. "Taking away one of the main avenues where kids congregate to play sports, games, etc, which can be supervised from all over, is certainly not helping the youth," says Folla.
Maintaining green spaces is important for the environment, economy and local communities. Roosevelt Island, a tight-knit community, bears out this research.
October Meeting with Soccer Stakeholders
At the end of October, RIOC staff met with a group of concerned Islanders, including RIRA Island Services Committee chair Rossana Ceruzzi, to discuss plans for renovating the Octagon Soccer Field. The meeting included RIOC President Susan Rosenthal, Chief Operating Officer Shelton Haynes, Steve Noone, former assistant vice president of Capital Planning and Projects, and other RIOC staff.
At the meeting, Noone said a schematic design for the project was completed and predicted six to eight weeks of procurement, once an RFP was released, and then another eight weeks of work. He also assured the group that repairs to the field would be completed first and access would be restored while other phases of construction continued.
At the end of November, Noone resigned. At the time, Rosenthal insisted his departure would not impact the project. She has since acknowledged that it has.
The closing of the Octagon Field last August came just as most parents were making plans to enroll their kids in the Island’s annual recreational fall soccer league, which was taken over last year by RIOC.
But with the Octagon Field closed, the league not only started a month late, but many games and practices were cancelled because of field conditions and weather. Practices and games were held at Firefighter’s Field, a grass field that because of increased use and inclement weather became a muddy mess.
Folla believes those fields create a deterrent to playing at all. "Having the Octagon Field closed on the Island will discourage kids to go out and play more, specifically since they would have to use an uneven, unkept, and muddy field such as Pony or Firefighters. In a time when kids are exercising less and spending more time indoors in front of screens, this inevitably becomes a decision that will affect the physical and mental health of the youth on the Island. It is proven time and again that kids need to be outside with friends in open space, running around, and playing different sports and games."
Massey questions whether RIOC’s liability with Octagon field in its current condition is actually less so than it is at Firefighters, Pony or Capobianco. “The natural surfaces on those fields cause equal or even greater risk in my opinion.”
He says, “If they can’t get this started in a timely fashion, I really wish they would reconsider opening the field. Kids are already breaking in and playing anyway, mine included. The fence they put up is a joke and poses its own liability.”
According to Cornell University’s Sports Field Management, grass fields show distinct wear after a mere 10 uses, including games and practices. The loss of the protective mat of vegetation will be gone between 25-50 uses and the soil will be exposed and ready to turn into mud when rained and played on.
Adib Mansour, longtime soccer coach on the Island and now the chair of RIRA’s Children, Youth & Education committee believes extended use wasn’t the only reason soccer season at Firefighter's was not a success. “Firefighter’s Field is not suitable for soccer for numerous reasons. The field is not flat – there are numerous bumps and dents – puddles are easily formed, and water is not easily absorbed by the surface. And Pony Field is not a soccer field, period.”
In short, the longer soccer players are left without a proper field to play on, the more damage that will be done to the Island’s other green spaces.
At the October meeting, Noone estimated the cost for the new field at $3.2 million. Besides a new turf field, he explained, RIOC plans to re-think the comfort station, making it large enough to include showers, and to add a concession space. There was also talk of including other active or passive spaces for when the field isn’t in use, including a different type of bleachers to serve that purpose.
Are these new amenities intended to increase the attractiveness of our field to off-Island groups? Obviously, Islanders don’t need to shower at the soccer field; we can all just hoof it home.
According to the most recent approved budget, permitting of the Octagon Field for 2018 brought in $420,000, a figurative drop in the bucket for an organization that has a typical operating budget of $25-30 million.
If new features like showers are meant for our benefit, then Island dad, soccer player Miguel Pincay wants to see some outreach to Islanders about what features would actually improve our experience. “There has been no real attempt to include the community in the process,” he says, citing shade and working water fountains as true priorities.
Mansour also points out that the current permitting process often leaves Islanders at a disadvantage to off-Island groups. “The field should be used by the Islanders and not limited to off-Island soccer organizations. It should have the Islanders as a priority. In other words, there should be ample free field time.”
At the October meeting, Donna Burns, RIOC’s permitting and programs manager, expressed regret that Island groups don’t reserve the field as frequently as off-Island groups do.
But local play is largely spontaneous. As Islander Tapan Parikh, a Cornell Tech professor who attended the meeting – his two sons are soccer players – points out, it’s difficult to picture a group of ten year-olds submitting permitting requests and building a play schedule to submit to RIOC.
Island kids wait for a Zog Flag Football game to finish so they can play soccer on the field
If Massey has his way though, the Octagon Field would never be permitted. “This is NOT Randall’s Island. There is NO reason they should rent our fields to off Island organizations.”
While much has yet to be announced about future plans for the Octagon Field, there has been one bright spot in discussion with Island stakeholders.
Initially the plan was for there to be a four-foot high fence around the entire field that would be locked. Noone felt strongly that fencing the soccer field would protect it from loose balls, dogs, and bicycles, none of which have historically been problems on the field. Cuneen said the fencing would extend the longevity of the field and “is not to restrict use for the public.”
“Even the idea of a four-foot fence will change community perception,” said Parikh.
Ultimately, in an email during Thanksgiving weekend, Rosenthal said the plan for a fence had been abandoned. “After listening to your opinions and careful consideration, we have decided not to fence the field and to wait and see if the absence of the fence has any adverse impact on the project and the community’s investment,” she wrote.
No matter what that the decision is regarding permitting, different decisions must be made where scheduling is concerned to ensure the new field is maintained.
There are alot of factors that must be considered when thinking about scheduling – including the type of sport being played. This fall at Firefighter’s field, as with the Octagon Field before it, off Island groups consisting of men playing football spent entire days tearing up the field with their spiked football cleats.
The grand opening for the Octagon Field occurred on August 26, 2010. Previously, the field had been grass, and similar to the Island’s other fields, it had been plagued by poor drainage. The new surface, artificial turf, was billed as quick draining. It cost $1.7 million.
The community celebrated the reopening of the newly refurbished soccer field at Octagon Park, with free clinics provided by the Red Bulls, a major-league soccer team. ZogSports joined the celebration as well and held a raffle to donate 20 soccer balls.
Unfortunately, that field, which was supposed to last at least ten years, was not properly maintained, leading to its untimely closure in August.
Islanders remain hopeful that RIOC puts more thought and care into the new one.