A proposed NASCAR speedway and big shopping mall on Staten Island, New York, has been scrapped in the face of local opposition led by the Sierra Club and two Staten Island organizations, joined by the 3-member Staten Island delegation to the New York City Council--one of whom was grabbed and put in a headlock by a racetrack supporter during a heated public hearing.
Hoping to bring Nascar racing to the country's largest media market, in May 2004, Florida-based International Speedway Corporation proposed a 82,500-seat track on 675 acres of grasslands and wetlands on the northwest tip of the island. Acknowledging that traffic could become nightmarish on race days, the company proposed a network of ferries, charter buses, and park-and-ride lots to service the track on the three proposed race weekends per year.
While the developer promised to provide temporary construction jobs, the long-term employment would have come mostly from low-wage retail jobs provided by the controversial proposed shopping mall. The Good Jobs New York organization expressed concern that such jobs often are part-time and do not provide health insurance. A former Staten Island borough president was hired to lobby for the project.
Staten Island resident Richie Villavicencio had been a Sierra Club member for some time, but was never active until he heard about the racetrack. "International Speedway had been sending out fancy brochures promoting the project," he says. "I wanted to see what the Sierra Club's concerns were, so I went to a local meeting. Everyone opposed the track because it would pollute the air, fill in 15 acres of wetlands, and tie up traffic, so we sent a letter to International Speedway outlining our concerns. We got back a form letter thanking us for our support."
Villacicencio and fellow volunteer Eliana Garcia formed and co-chaired the Staten Island Natural Resources Committee to oppose the track, and Club activists got permits to distribute flyers at public events, on the ferry, at the beach, and concerts in Lincoln Park. Three door-knocking events were conducted in the neighborhood where the racetrack was proposed, where volunteers left postcards that residents could sign and send to the city council. "Of the people spoke to, I'd say 90 percent were against the track," Villavicencio says.
Club organizers Suzanne Mattei and David Veliz assisted the campaign by developing a report documenting the project's harmful impact on wetlands, wildlife, and air quality, and helping put together a PowerPoint presentation as an April 2006 public hearing on the project approached.
"We were told we couldn't bring signs to the hearing," says Villavicencio, "so we printed up sticker-buttons for people to wear. And then once we got inside the hall, the pro-racetrack people had covered the whole place with signs!"
More than 1,000 people showed up for the hearing, including hundreds brought in by International Speedway to comment in favor of the racetrack. "They packed the place, and citizens who opposed the project couldn't get a turn at the microphone," Villavicencio says. "But my wife grew up on Staten Island and she said she knew right away that most of the people weren’t local."
When Councilman Andrew Lanza, a racetrack opponent, began his comments by saying it was obvious most of the crowd wasn't from Staten Island, things turned ugly, Villavicencio says. "One racetrack supporter put Lanza in a headlock, and people were yelling, 'Punch him in the face!'" The police were called and they shut down the hearing, saying the auditorium's capacity had been exceeded, and there were no subsequent hearings. In December 2006, International Speedway dropped its plan.
Mattei was especially gratified that the victory was a bipartisan effort, as one of the three Staten Island city councilmen was a Democrat and the other two were Republicans.
Villavicencio has since been elected to the Club's New York City Group executive committee.
Photos used with permission.