Centerfield runs into the soccer pitch at Riverside Park. Different sports interact differently with their playing surfaces.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

Centerfield runs into the soccer pitch at Riverside Park. Different sports interact differently with their playing surfaces.

It didn’t immediately look like a mistake. When the city first made the case, many agreed: Common sense seemed to dictate the move to artificial turf.

Months after becoming Bloomberg’s parks commissioner in 2002, Adrian Benepe announced the expansion of a pilot program called Green Acres, which had put 12 artificial fields in parks over the previous four years, the majority on asphalt yards. Seven were in Manhattan, where Benepe had been the borough’s parks chief under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“Just the tip of the iceberg,” vowed Benepe during a 2002 City Council budget hearing. “We’re strong believers, whenever possible, in the use of synthetic turf for a variety of reasons.”

One of the primary reasons, he said, was durability. Turf could hold up under high demand, particularly the punishing play of soccer, and it supposedly required little to no maintenance. Benepe singled out the growth of youth soccer and women’s sports as fueling a greater need for athletic fields, saying that demand far exceeded what grass could handle. His boss was a big believer in artificial turf too. In his 2001 mayoral campaign, Bloomberg promised to improve parks, and his official biography prominently featured his philanthropic support for “the construction of new athletic fields at city high schools throughout the five boroughs.”

Bloomberg had donated $1 million to Take the Field, a nonprofit that installed 42 artificial-turf fields at public schools. Take the Field embodied the public-private partnership model that Bloomberg continues to find so attractive: Seeded by foundation grants in 1999, the nonprofit persuaded the city to match every $1 in private donations with $3 in government funding. It eventually raised $36 million, and taxpayers chipped in $97 million. The project, which concluded in 2008, was instrumental in paving the way for 31 additional artificial fields at public schools, bringing the Department of Education’s total number of turf fields to 73. “We just don’t have the money for grass,” the mayor later told reporters.

New York City’s embracing of turf not only reflected Bloomberg’s faith in technology but also represented the culmination of a 50-year quest for a manufactured playing surface for city parks and schools. That mission finds its roots on the Upper West Side, at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where in 1958 a committee on educational facilities received a $4.5 million grant from the Ford Foundation. The group’s first white paper tackled the lack of green spaces for inner-city schools.

“Originally there may have been living lawns and play fields, but the scuffle of too many feet soon turned the grass to gravel, the gravel to dirt and mud,” the report said. The researchers worried that young people were increasingly out of shape, particularly city kids: “Whoever invents for rooftop and playground a material that looks like grass and acts like grass, a turf-like substance on which a ball will bounce and a child will not, a covering that brings a slice of spring in Scarsdale to 14th Street in April, will have struck a blow for stability in the big city.”

The report inspired three scientists at Monsanto to develop the first artificial-turf product, ChemGrass, and that material evolved into AstroTurf, the nylon carpet laid down at the Houston Astrodome in 1966 and the chief component for millions of welcome mats. Though the city’s first artificial athletic fields were similar nylon carpets, by 2002 Benepe was no longer interested in AstroTurf. He had become enamored of the new breed of artificial fields developed in the mid-1990s dubbed “synthetic turf.”

Synthetic turf was designed to more closely replicate real grass, with thin, green plastic strips acting as blades attached to a rubber backing and suspended in a field of loose rubber crumbs posing as dirt. The rubber came from ground-up car and truck tires. The new product presented a softer, more forgiving surface than the old AstroTurf, and it was cheaper too. While the city’s first nylon-carpet field in Chelsea Park cost $1.3 million in 1998, a rubber-infill synthetic- turf field could be had for $700,000 to $1 million, Benepe told the Council. Resodding a grass field cost far less, between $500,000 and $650,000, but grass fields turn into “dust bowls” and need to be replaced every three years, according to Benepe.

Additional savings were supposed to come from maintenance. Currently, the Parks Department puts the annual bill for the upkeep of one grass athletic field at $14,000, including equipment and staffing.

But on closer inspection, the artificial surface looks less attractive. In response to repeated questions, the agency couldn’t name a single grass field on which it’s ever spent as much as $14,000 a year on maintenance, and it couldn’t name any grass fields it’s replaced after three years. There’s no need to replace grass that’s properly maintained; the Central Park Conservancy, a public-private partnership, hasn’t replaced the grass fields of the Great Lawn since they were reconstructed 12 years ago.

Over a 10-year period, the cost of natural grass, by Benepe’s 2002 reckoning, would have run between $640,000 and $790,000 with proper maintenance and no replacement, compared with $700,000 to $1 million for the artificial turf with no repairs. An examination of actual grass and turf contracts suggests even greater savings are possible. In 2001 and 2002, the city paid for both grass and artificial-turf fields at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The price per square foot was 60 cents for sod and compost compared with $7.90 for synthetic turf. The sod and compost for two grass fields went for $112,305, while the two artificial-turf fields cost $987,500.

Even if the sod was replaced every three years—it’s never been replaced—the savings on a constant-dollar basis would have been $370,585. The grass contract also included 62,000 extra square feet of sod, just shy of enough for a third soccer field. But these calculations assume the grass fields would be maintained, of course, and maintenance requires workers.

The Parks Department includes the cost of staffing in its annual $14,000 figure for the upkeep of one grass field, even though the agency doesn’t have the staff for maintaining grass. The Parks Department has never recovered from the drastic cuts in its workforce beginning during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, and three decades of budget crises have left parks and school facilities in bad shape. Bloomberg has made no secret of his reluctance to hire maintenance workers: His proposed budget this year would have sent the Parks Department’s full-time workforce below 3,000—almost half the number employed 20 years ago. The final budget does not cut the agency’s funding as deeply as the mayor proposed, but it does strip $35 million from Parks.

In 20 years of post-fiscal-crisis life, the city’s natural-turf ball fields—totaling 654 last year—sometimes got their grass cut by roving crews that juggle other responsibilities, but often no one cuts the grass. Before the city installed an artificial- turf field at St. Michael’s Park in Queens, for example, residents grumbled that their playing field was far from a dust bowl: The grass measured 21 inches high. The situation got so bad that some groups decided to take matters into their own hands, paying to fix up park ball fields and then slapping padlocks on their gates to keep the public out.

Under separate agreements with the city, many private groups have taken over public ball fields. In 2005, 64 athletic fields were padlocked in 46 parks. (The Parks Department declined to update these numbers.) Schools and leagues complain about a shortage of fields, though that problem may depend on where you live and what you’re forced to play on. Twenty private schools in Manhattan were willing to pay the city and the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation $2.6 million a year over two decades for exclusive afternoon use of park athletic fields. Of that annual payment, $400,000 would have covered maintenance. A judge twice struck down the controversial pay-to-play deal after a lawsuit was filed by East Harlem residents and public school parents, but the city went ahead and built more than 60 fields without the private money. A June trip out to the park situated in the middle of the East River found many of the fields sitting empty in mid-afternoon, including all 11 made of artificial turf.

The Central Park Conservancy employs 26 ball field maintenance workers for 26 grass fields, but city parks don’t have a single dedicated ball field maintenance crew. “We refuse to hire people to maintain our fields,” says Geoffrey Croft of the nonprofit watchdog NYC Park Advocates. He calls the city’s case for putting artificial turf on its credit card the “Wimpy defense,” referring to the lackadaisical character in the cartoon Popeye: “‘I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.’ That’s how the city almost went bankrupt in the 1970s. But when it comes to athletic fields, you could hire human beings to maintain grass, and it would cost much less than artificial turf.”

Yet the myth of the maintenance-free field exerted a powerful pull within the Parks Department. Artificial turf looked like a solution to the agency’s lack of resources. “There is very little maintenance cost for a synthetic-turf field,” said Keith Kerman, the Parks Department’s chief of operations, in 2006. He was trying to justify the much greater initial cost of a turf field—then averaging about $1.3 million— compared with a grass one. “These fields are alleviating maintenance concerns and letting us dedicate maintenance costs elsewhere. They’re less expensive in total, and most of the cost is capital. The truth is, if we got additional resources, why wouldn’t you want to put them elsewhere anyway?”

The truth is, artificial turf also requires maintenance. In testimony before the City Council in 2007, Benepe estimated the yearly maintenance cost for an artificial-turf field to be $1,500, but earlier studies by Michigan State University and Massachusetts’ Springfield College put the annual maintenance bill for a synthetic-turf field at $17,720 and $5,000, respectively. The size of each school and the consequent use of each field could account for the discrepancy, yet both concluded that when installation and maintenance costs were combined, natural grass cost much less than artificial turf. Michigan State University discovered that a synthetic-turf field also needed equipment and materials that could run at least an additional $8,250.

What’s more, turf manufacturers can void warranties in the absence of regular maintenance. In a review of Parks Department purchasing contracts for synthetic turf, City Limits found warranties that required biweekly brushing, sweeping and watering. Brushes should contain no metal because broken bristles or fibers can lodge in the turf and create a safety hazard. Dirt and litter must be removed on a regular basis, though mechanical sweepers can’t be used when the temperature climbs above 90 degrees. Drains have to be cleaned periodically, and ice should be removed with chemicals, with any residue flushed off as soon as weather permits. Weeds should be stopped from poking through some surfaces by spraying the underlying asphalt with a grass killer every two years. Owners are bound to “vigorously enforce” a smoking ban, and idling vehicles should be kept off the synthetic turf to prevent the surface from melting. Equipment must never have engine fluids changed on the turf, and the manufacturer’s obligations are conditioned on the purchaser’s making “all minor repairs promptly.”

What the city actually spends on artificial-turf maintenance remains a mystery, but repairs are wildly inconsistent. Soccer players in Brooklyn’s Dyker Beach Park said they have never seen a Parks Department worker maintain the turf there, and the condition of the three artificial fields lent credence to their claims. The green plastic blades had been worn off in spots, leaving just the rubber crumbs. Lines were missing, and the surface was loose and bunching. Two of the fields had gaps as wide as 8 inches, where the turf had broken down completely and rocks were coming up from the dirt under the pad. The heat was oppressive, forcing players to periodically pour water on their shoes.

Other fields appeared to get fixed on a catch-as-catch-can basis. A year ago, Manhattan’s East River Park had an artificial- turf field in tatters, with opened seams and ripped-out lines. The carpet could be lifted off the ground. On a recent visit, however, the field had been patched and stitched together again, though its splits consequently reopened, and the field developed several new tears. It retained two “sinkholes,” or depressions, from before the time of the fixes. Even when repairs are made, there’s no telling how long they’ll stick.