By Joe Anuta
As a Whitestone civic group fights to turn an overgrown, empty lot into a community sports complex, one resident’s innocuous post on Facebook has spawned a well-documented and surprisingly candid discussion into opinions on both sides of the fence.
The Malba Gardens Civic Association has been toying with the idea of building baseball, soccer and running facilities on the vacant, 6-acre lot along 150th Street for years, according to the civic’s president, Alfred Centola.
“My idea is to reacquire the land and give it back to the kids of the community,” he said of the lot, between 3rd and 6th avenues, which was previously owned by the Catholic Youth Organization.
The quest was laid out in an October Daily News opinion piece written by Centola, and it all seemed like a good idea to Steve Behar, who posted “Nice Op-Ed. My brother and I went to that CYO camp” at 5:56 p.m. Oct. 5 on Centola’s Facebook page.
Twelve minutes later, City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) replied: “Steve — and who’s going to come up with the tens of millions to acquire, remediate, develop, build, and staff this facility?”
A flurry of 46 more comments followed — many containing personalized barbs — and offered a frank and transparent discussion about the benefits and hurdles associated with the project.
Centola made the argument that Whitestone sports leagues, which must often travel outside the neighborhood for lack of facilities, are behind the plan en masse.
“The leagues in the community, which to me are civic groups, love the idea and have offered to help in any way possible. They represent thousands of families in the community and are the best [gauge],” he said.
But Halloran said the community is not wanting for greenspace and that money he and other electeds allocated years ago to refurbish and maintain other parks in the area has still not been spent.
“[The city Parks Department] sits on these projects driving up prices and delays work to discourage spending — its not the local electeds its the mayor’s office and Parks [bureaucrats] that are the problem,” he said.
Halloran often tempered his responses with phrases like “guess you didn’t know that” or “you have no clue how discretionary spending works.”
Centola at one point referred to the councilman as “testy” and said “try and relax yourself, you might give yourself a heart attack.”
One person absent from the Facebook conversation was state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who originally proposed the site as potential parkland, but could not command community support. He has publicly expressed his support for the sporting complex using other mediums.
The construction of 55 homes was once planned for the site, but aside from some tennis courts and a swimming pool leftover from the youth organization, which closed in 1988, nothing was ever built, according to the civic.
The land is currently in foreclosure, and Centola hopes that bank will be looking to unload it for cheap in the down market.
During better economic times, a real estate firm estimated the land was worth $25 million, according to the civic, which hopes the city could use eminent domain to nab it for 50 percent to 70 percent less than that.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.