The Savannah Sparrow, a rather small bird, seems to have triumphed over the Grand Prix ambitions of the rather large screen actor Paul Newman.
At least for now, Mr. Newman's proposal to throw a yearly, 10-day auto-racing festival at historic Floyd Bennett Field, where the Savannah Sparrow likes to hunt, has come to a halt.
Mr. Newman, a devoted racing enthusiast, pitched the idea for the event to park officials in April. According to his partner in the project, Geoffrey Whaling, a longtime racing promoter, it has been Mr. Newman's "lifelong dream to bring his passions for charity, New York, and motorsports together."
Floyd Bennett Field, which opened in 1931 as New York City's first municipal airport and has long since been replaced by John F. Kennedy International and La Guardia airports, has become home to many species of birds and pests, who breed, feed, and hunt on the airstrip's abandoned runways and grasslands.
The superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area, Barry Sullivan informed Mr. Whaling in a letter dated June 13 that "it was not appropriate to have a race of that type in a national park area because it's not compatible with the purposes for which the park was established."
The proposed racing event — a "Festival of Speed," as Mr. Sullivan refers to it in his letter — would have brought up to 65,000 Grand Prix fans to the area every September. Mr. Newman's vision involved two days of racing and eight days of fund-raising and charity events.
Mr. Sullivan told The New York Sun yesterday that the racetrack was not a good match for Gateway because of the sound that would come from the cars and impact the festival would have on activities at the park, such as hiking, bird-watching, and archery.
The 1,200 acre airstrip at Floyd Bennet Field, which once launched legendary flights by Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes, is now part of the government-protected Gateway National Recreation Center, and Mr. Newman's vision for a 3.5 mile racetrack there has been met with opposition from elected officials and environmentalists.
Mr. Whaling and Mr. Newman pitched the idea for the racing festival to Gateway superintendent Mr. Sullivan and other National Park Service officials in April and met with them again on June 6. In addition to the racing festival, Mr. Newman's proposal included a plan to convert a set of abandoned naval barracks at the airfield into an office for Mr. Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for children suffering from terminal illnesses.
Mr. Sullivan noted that Gateway was not nixing Mr. Newman's entire proposal — just the part with the loud, fast cars — and that he looks forward to future discussions regarding the charitable summer camp optioned for the abandoned naval barracks.
In his response to Mr. Sullivan's June 13 letter, Mr. Whaling wrote that the summer camp is "intrinsically tied" to the operation of the Grand Prix event.
"It is through this annual recreational sporting event that we would generate the revenues needed to operate the camp and promote its operation," he wrote in his letter, which he provided to the Sun. Mr. Whaling also asked Mr. Sullivan to clarify how he defines Gateway's "purpose" and how, specifically, he thought the event would affect "park resources and the surrounding community."
Mr. Whaling said yesterday that he was not discouraged by the National Parks Service's decision. He acknowledged that the event's expected turnout violates the park's current regulations, which limit the number of park attendees to 10,000 at a time.
But those regulations are up for review in January, he said, and in the meantime, he and Mr. Newman will continue trying to build community support for the project.
"Currently, they have a policy in place that was initiated in the early 1900's for all national parks," Mr. Whaling said. "The question is, should a national park — and in this case, a recreation area — that is close to Brooklyn be under the same rules and regulations as a recreation area that is in Yosemite?"
State Senator Carl Kruger, who has voiced support for the racetrack project since he heard the pitch in April, said he is confident that Gateway's response to Mr. Newman's proposal is "not a bump in the road."
"By December of this year, when the rules are reopened, I‘m sure that we'll be able to deal with the rules and capacity issues," he said.
Mr. Sullivan's letter to Mr. Whaling tentatively echoed Mr. Kruger's predictions. "Gateway National Recreation Area will be working on a planning process to develop a long term use and development vision for Floyd Bennett Field," Mr. Sullivan wrote in his letter, which was provided to the Sun by the superintendent of the Gateway office overseeing Floyd Bennett Field. "This is a public process and one of the issues we will be looking at is whether it is appropriate to use portions of the Field to host large public events and, if so, where and when those events could be held."
The Gateway National Recreation Center, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Interior, stretches from the New York boroughs to New Jersey. It serves as a home for wildlife and attracts millions of visitors every year.
According to naturalist Ronald Bourque, who lives near Marine Park about 10 minutes away from Floyd Bennett Field, the Grand Prix racing festival would endanger the numerous species of birds that call the airfield home.
Mr. Bourque, who has been a member of the Brooklyn Bird Club for 30 years and the New York City Audubon Society for 20, said that depending on the season, one can find a variety of hawks, falcons, owls, and shore-birds at Floyd Bennett Field.
"Most people think that those runways are just empty spaces," Mr. Bourque said,"but if you drive out there early in the morning, there are puddles, and you'll find three or four species of gulls bathing in the puddles.
"My wife and I did the bird list for the field," he added. "During the migration in the fall, there are all kinds of hawks — Red-Tailed Hawks, Coopers Hawks, Sharp-Shinned Hawks — and American Kestrels. Another bird you'll see running out on the runways are Killdeer, which is a small shore bird. They breed in Floyd Bennett Field."
The 130 acres of grasslands scattered among the runways also provide hunting ground for the Savannah Sparrow, the Northern Harrier, and the American Kestrels, Mr. Bourque said.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, who vocally opposed Mr. Newman's proposal in April, said in a statement through his press secretary that while he welcomes "smart recreation ideas" for Gateway, "this proposal was neither smart nor recreation. The National Parks Service was right to reject it."