BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
While the Town of Orangetown wrestles over how to make its two public golf courses profitable the Town Board decided last week to proceed with another recreational project – creating new soccer and other athletic fields on a portion of the vacant former Rockland Psychiatric Center campus it now owns.
The town purchased the bulk of the former state psychiatric hospital site in Orangeburg more than a decade ago, and has been trying to figure out what to do with much of it ever since.
Based on the success of its joint ventures with the Orangetown Mighty Midgets and the Gaelic Athletic League, among others, at creating public-private ball fields on a portion of the site over the past five years, the council agreed last Thursday to begin exploring the creation of additional fields on what is being called “Lot 10” at RPC.
This is described by town officials as a vacant parcel of between 10 and 15 acres of cleared land lying on the eastern shore of the Lake Tappan Reservoir, and mid-way between the recently closed Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center and the new soccer fields built off Old Orangeburg Road.
The prime movers of the new venture on the board appear to be Councilmen Thomas Diviny and Dennis Troy, who garnered unanimous council support last week to begin surveying the proposed site.
Initially the concept will cost the town nothing, Diviny pointed out. At least three youth athletic leagues have already agreed to provide any funding needed to hire local landscaper O’Sullivan Tree Care of Blauvelt to cut any brush and trees from the site and begin leveling the land for playing field use. The leagues will then begin measuring the property to see how many baseball, soccer, lacrosse and other fields than can fit onto the site.
Diviny said the land is generally flat and level, and slopes slightly downward to the west, toward the reservoir. By terracing the land, he said it should be quite easy for the town and the leagues to create several playing fields there, along with the necessary parking, clubhouses, storage sheds, refreshment stands and other ancillary facilities.
Leagues already signed onto the project, according to Diviny and Troy, are the Pearl River Lacrosse League, the Patriot Football League and the Orangetown Mighty Midgets, who have grown so large they now require additional fields to the ones they already operate.
Diviny added that if other youth recreation leagues in Orangetown are interested in participating in the venture, they should contact the town’s parks and recreation department as soon as possible to get in on the ground floor.
Recreation Super center
The former RPC campus is quickly becoming a super sports complex for not only Orangetown but also all of Rockland County.
The town acquired its first portion of the shrinking hospital site nearly three decades ago, when it obtained several acres of former farm and pastureland between Orangeburg Road and Hunt Road in Orangeburg. An 18thcentury Dutch sandstone house on the property, used by RPC to house a staff psychiatrist and his family, was converted to the office and headquarters of the parks and recreation department, while the farm fields were turned into multiple athletic fields.
There are also two ponds, one used extensively for fishing, as well as a batting cage, refreshment stands, bleachers and other facilities. The entire complex is called the town’s Veterans Memorial Park.
More recently the town acquired more acreage across the street, north of Orangeburg Road, and that has been developed over the past two or thee years into a similar complex of athletic fields for a variety of sports. This time, however, the town worked in conjunction with individual sports leagues. In return for providing the bulk of the cost of developing the fields, those leagues are given preferential usage of them, with others being allowed to use them when not in use by their prime sponsors. Most of the fields are used for soccer by various leagues.
Fields on both sides of the street are also fully lighted for nighttime use, and the newer fields north of the highway have much larger clubhouse, storage and refreshment facilities.
Demand is High
Diviny and Troy said the demand for such fields in Orangetown is tremendous, and no end is foreseen at this time. Youth recreational leagues in baseball, softball, football, soccer, lacrosse, tennis, basketball and other sports are expanding exponentially, the councilmen say, and the town just isn’t able to keep up with the requests. Both men are strong proponents of the joint partnership concept, by which the leagues provide much or most of the development and operational costs themselves, while the town and private contractors assist them.
O’Sullivan, as an example, is providing his tree and landscaping service to the leagues at his own cost, Diviny said, as a public service to the children of Orangetown and their families. With the exception of the two storms last fall, the winter is normally a quiet time for landscapers like O’Sullivan, he added, and he is able to keep his men employed and his equipment maintained by working through the cold season on community service projects such as this.
Because of the fact that O’Sullivan expects to become busy again in the spring, Diviny said he and Troy agreed to push through the resolution last week to start the project now, instead of waiting until the plans are more fully developed by spring or summer. This way, if the project is successful, the fields may actually get constructed this year, and be ready for play by the spring of 2013, a full year ahead of schedule.
More Land Sought
Ironically, while Orangetown is finally deciding on a use for a small portion of the land it acquired from the state years ago, it is at the same time seeking more than 100 acres of additional land from Albany.
Council members said the town is proceeding with its request to obtain the recently closed Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center south of Convent Road in Blauvelt, as well as the land and brick apartment buildings along the horseshoe-shaped Staff Court, located just outside the gates to the main RPC campus, on Old Orangeburg Road.
The town is hoping to acquire both sites for free, and has been negotiating with various state agencies for the past several months. Orangetown is being assisted in this effort by Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee and State Senator David Carlucci, and has also hired a lobbying firm to assist it in dealing with the state agencies.
New York State purchased over 1,000 acres of former farmland in Orangeburg and Blauvelt in 1929 to create what was then called Rockland State Hospital, the largest mental health facility in the state’s history. With 117 buildings, it housed 10,000 patients and 10,000 resident employees at its peak in a “mini-city” of 20,000 residents, the county’s largest community.
It was a self-contained city too, with its own farms for growing fruits and vegetables and raising cows for meat and milk, its own steam laundry, police department, fire department, electrical power plant, sewer treatment plant, wells and pumping stations for water, underground warehouses for food storage, and a network of underground tunnels that connected every building and contained utility lines and passageways for both staff and patients so they never had to venture outside. There were recreation halls, libraries, kitchens, metal and woodworking shops, maintenance facilities, theaters, a print shop, a bus station, a railroad siding, ball fields and even cemeteries for those patients who died there. Patients lived in large dormitories, military-style, while staff had a variety of accommodations, from the director’s mansion to houses and apartments for professional staff, and college dorm style buildings for clerical, food, maintenance and farm staff workers.
Patients, when not receiving treatment, often worked the farms themselves, and also worked in sheltered workshops making wood and metal items that could be sold for revenue. Others worked in the kitchens, laundry, power plant and other central facilities. Life proceeded for half a century this way, with little or no outside observation or interference. That all changed in the 1960’s when television reporter Geraldo Rivera highlighted the dismal treatment of patients at a similar institution, Willowbrook, on Staten Island, and a year later Letchworth Village in Rockland County.
That expose brought about quick changes in the treatment of mental illness in New York State. Some hospitals, such as Willowbrook and Letchworth, were suddenly closed. Others, such as RPC, were drastically downsized, with most patients being transferred to much smaller group homes throughout the region. From a high of nearly 10,000 patients, Rockland Psychiatric Center went down to less than 500 within five years.
With excess land and buildings, the state began divesting itself of these unneeded facilities from another age. At first, it gave away small parcels of land, usually former farmland. Orangetown was on the receiving end of this largess, obtaining the acreage south of Orangeburg Road that is now Veterans Memorial Park. Other land was sold to private developers, including acreage that is now housing developments east of Blaisdell Road, and commercial developments south of Blaisdell and along Hunt Road.
By 1998 RPC had shrunk to 555 acres and 117 buildings, and from 20,000 residents to only 400 patients and no employees living on campus anymore.
That was the year New York State put 348 of those remaining acres on the market for sale to the highest bidder. A Long Island developer submitted the winning bid, but had to withdraw after failing to convince Orangetown to change the zoning to allow him to build thousands of units of housing there. Terrified of the impact of such development, the town similarly thwarted each successive developer, until none were left.
Town Buys RPC
By 2003 Orangetown was the sole entity left interested in the RPC property, and offered the state $5.95 million for the 348 acres. Left with no alternative, the state accepted the town’s offer, and Orangetown became the newest, and current, owner of the former hospital. It has been trying to decide what to do with it ever since.
The town sold a small parcel to the Gaelic Athletic League that constructed soccer fields there, sold a larger parcel to a Pearl River firm to build an indoor sports complex and sold the bulk of the campus to New Jersey developer K. Hovnanian and Sons, for a huge adult housing complex.
Hovnanian later pulled out when the housing market collapsed, and returned the land to the town. The sports complex developer has yet to close on his parcel and never broke ground.
The town, in the meantime, attempted to build an aquatic facility, consisting of four swimming pools and a community center, on a portion of the site between Old Orangeburg Road and Lake Tappan. Financing for that fell through when a resident forced a public referendum on the proposed bond issue, and it was defeated. It has never been brought up since then.
The town has developed a sports complex of its own between Old and New Orangeburg Roads, however, as well as north of Old Orangeburg Road, consisting of several outdoor athletic fields used under contract by several non-profit youth organizations. The town still owns over 200 acres of land it doesn’t have a current use for, along with 73 vacant buildings that are rapidly deteriorating.
Elsewhere in Rockland County, the Towns of Haverstraw and Stony Point, along with the North Rockland Central School District, have divided up the purchase of the former Letchworth Village Developmental Center campus in Thiells. Although each of the entities has made some use of part of the land and a few buildings, the bulk of that campus also remains vacant, with the two towns anxious to sell them to any interested parties.
And soon, if Orangetown has its way, it will also own the third such campus here in Rockland, the former Children’s Psychiatric Center in Blauvelt. The state closed that facility two years ago when it constructed a brand new children’s hospital on the old RPC campus, near the two high rise buildings that today house their adult patients.
Unlike the two older hospitals, the children’s hospital was built in the 1960’s and is considered a “modern” building, with an indoor swimming pool and other recreational facilities. From the outside, it looks like a typical sprawling suburban high school. The town has given no indication of what it wants to do with the facility if it successfully acquires it from the state. Some town officials and residents have suggested over the past couple of years that it would make an ideal new town hall to replace the aging and overcrowded facility the town currently uses in Orangeburg, built in 1959.