SCHENECTADY — Ed Varno has lived on the corner of Campbell Avenue and Fourth Street for 30 years.
The retired city firefighter can glance out behind his house at Bellevue’s Fourth Street field, where his kids played baseball and he served as a Schenectady Little League coach.
He recalled long summer nights when the neighborhood was transformed into something magical.
“It was the best time of my life,” Varno said.
While the city-owned Hillhurst Park appears generally well-maintained, nature is reclaiming additional tracts of the property: Vines are swallowing fences; thick foliage and dead locust trees line the perimeter, threatening to collapse into backyards.
And structures are moldering into the landscape, including a dugout flooded with stagnant water and a clubhouse caked with black mold.
“It was like a gem,” Varno said. “This never looked like this.”
A neighbor helps keep the field mowed. But the neglected property is attracting criminal activity and other “naked abuses,” he said, including drug addicts, vandals breaking into the unsecured concession stand and homeless people traveling through the urban wilderness.
“I try to keep as much riffraff out as I can, but I’m only one person,” Varno said.
Varno said his property value has plummeted. Now he wants the city to take action by removing the buildings and securing the location.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “It’s really disheartening.”
The city has sought to take an aggressive approach on combating derelict properties, attempting to rapidly turn around foreclosed homes in order to stave off further deterioration and creeping blight.
But abandoned baseball fields present a new front in the fight against decay and the ability for the city to maintain services and infrastructure built for a significantly larger population.
“We’re going to look at how to deal with that,” said Mayor Gary McCarthy. “I don’t have a clear answer.”
Schenectady Little League has historically operated and maintained baseball fields. But as teams have dried up and shrunk over the years, so have the agreements that have seen the teams use the city-owned property in exchange for maintenance upkeep.
This isn’t the first time deteriorating conditions have generated complaints.
After a period of disuse, the Fourth Street field was held up as a model of civic cooperation in 2016 when a group of volunteers led by the Tri-City ValleyCats paired with the city and corporate sponsors to renovate the field.
“For us to see that and to have the opportunity thanks to some of these partnerships and to come out and make a difference, I think is just really is a highlight of why we do this project,” ValleyCats general manager Matt Callahan said at the time.
Varno noted a stream of officials visited the site for a photo-op, posing in front of fresh rolls of sod.
“I’d like to see you back up there to see what this field has turned into,” he told the City Council on Monday.
Another grassroots effort is unlikely, he said, noting the neighborhood’s transition over time: Renters aren’t as invested in their community as the long-time homeowners who have slowly departed over time.
Schenectady-based Upstate Premier Baseball initially planned on placing its youth teams there.
The organization invested in refurbishing the field, but struggled to take care of the park and ultimately walked away.
“It turned into a quite a hardship to take care of that whole entire park — it was too big of an undertaking,” said Bill Creighton of Upstate Premier Baseball. “It was difficult to maintain, which is why we stopped playing there.”
Creighton said Upstate didn’t have a formal deal with the city to maintain the entire property, which also contains a second diamond which is also overgrown and trash-strewn.
“There was nothing specific about maintaining the park,” he said. “It wasn’t really a viable working situation to us at the time.”
The City Council passed a resolution authorizing the maintenance agreement in 2015.
Terms for the agreements vary on a case-by-case basis, said City Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico.
Councilman Vince Riggi has also asked city officials to address the deterioration, noting the city’s Parks Department had also invested resources in the 2016 renovation.
“Right now, it’s becoming a haven for some really bad things,” Riggi said. “It is city property, and it is incumbent on us to take some action.”
Riggi said he wasn’t advocating for a full restoration of the property, but said the buildings should be demolished and the fence removed.
He even floated letting nature reclaim the site.
Riggi has also received complaints about the Michigan Avenue field in Mont Pleasant, but said the city should take an assertive role in preserving the location, which served as a launchpad for several teams to reach Little League World Series in the 1950s, as a historic site.
NO CLEAR PATH
City Councilman John Polimeni played at the Fourth Street field as a kid.
“Those buildings do need to be razed,” he said. “It’s unfortunate it has gotten to that point.”
He said crafting out a sustainable solution to maintain fields with limited resources is the “million dollar question.”
He floated the idea of creating a “commissioner of baseball” position to bolster participation in youth sports and drive community involvement across the city.
“It needs to be multi-faceted and coordinated with families and parents, but also the school district,” Polimeni said. “That to me is a long-term goal and possible solution.”
Varno understands the city has limited resources, but if the city cannot find a solution, he plans on asking the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department to provide an inmate work detail to clean up the site.
He said he was disappointed that the city does not appear to hold itself to the same standard as homeowners when it comes to property maintenance.
The firefighter could have purchased a home anywhere, but as a city employee, he felt as if he should reside in the city.
“You try to keep your place up and this is what happens,” he said. “Now after 30 years of being here, this is what I have to put up with?”