For someone who remembers attending his first big league ballgame¹ at Shea Stadium, the then two-year-old home of the New York Mets in 1966, it is hard to believe that its successor, Citi Field, will celebrate its tenth birthday in April.
Built on what was Shea’s parking lot, Citi Field was at the leading edge of green venues when it opened in 2009. Given the advances in stadium greening in the intervening decade, we decided to see how the ballpark and the Mets have kept up. To do so, we went out to Queens to meet with Mike Dohnert, the Mets longtime director of operations.
GreenSportsBlog: Mike, you’ve been at Citi Field since the doors opened almost ten years ago. That means you’re the best person to talk about the stadium’s green history and where things can go from here. How did you come to work with the Mets in what sounds like such a cool job?
Mike Dohnert: Well, Lew, I grew up as a huge Mets fan in lower Manhattan…
GSB: …As a lifelong Yankees fan, you have my sympathies…
Mike: …Let’s Go Mets! I went to the State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo and then transferred to Baruch College in Manhattan. I studied operations management, graduating in 2001. In 1999, I got an internship with the Mets at Shea Stadium, working for the manager of ballpark operations at the time.
GSB: That sounds like a cool internship…
Mike Dohnert, director of operations of the New York Mets, at Citi Field (Photo credit: New York Mets)
Mike: Oh yeah! I mean it was sports, it was the Mets, it was great. When the internship ended, my boss, Sue Lucchi, said she needed help. I said “sure.” And I’ve been there ever since.
GSB: What did you do during the internship?
Mike: Anything to do with the playing field and the club offices. Shea was owned by the City of New York; the city was responsible for the structure itself; the electrical, plumbing, etc. So we really weren’t involved in things like energy efficiency. That would change once Citi Field opened in 2009.
GSB: I know that sustainability was embedded in the DNA of Citi Field’s construction. Were you involved?
Mike: Not in the construction phase — I’m strictly an operations guy. Interestingly, the one thing we were responsible for was the maintenance of a 14 foot fire lane between Shea Stadium and Citi Field. The new stadium was built in Shea’s parking lot and the two ballparks were very, very close together.
Aerial photo of Shea Stadium in the foreground and the then under-construction Citi Field across a narrow path in the rear (Photo credit: Mark Lennihan/AP)
GSB: I can imagine. What were some of the greener aspects of Citi Field when it opened?
Mike: The HVAC system was quite advanced for that time. Since then we’ve added a building management system (BMS) with sensors to collect energy usage data in real time. The front office was upgraded to LEDs over the last two years — we didn’t go with LEDs at the opening since they were so expensive back ten years ago. Since then, the price has of course come down precipitously so we’re doing rolling upgrades, starting in 2017-18 with the front office and plaza level. And this is just the beginning because we know that, by 2025, we need to be in compliance with Local Law 88…
GSB: …the New York City law governing energy efficiency.
Mike: We have an engineering firm looking how to help us get there on lighting with LEDs for the field, concourses, bathrooms and everything else. Sensors as well.
GSB: How is Citi Field doing on water efficiency?
Mike: We’ve got waterless urinals and low-flow toilets. Xlerator hand dryers are big energy savers, from a kilowatt hours (kWh) perspective, as well as from saving on paper towels and reduced maintenance. The club looked into a gray water-water retention program a couple years ago but city regulations prevented it. We are looking at sub-metering water usage which would highlight savings opportunities.
GSB: And perhaps those city regulations will change in the not-too-distant future. What about the green roof?
Mike: The 11,000 square foot green roof is atop the administration offices in right field. It’s naturally irrigated and uses hydroponics. We grow fruits and vegetables up there. It provides natural insulation, cooling the indoor spaces below in summer. It also helps regulate water runoff.
GSB: That’s great. Can fans see it?
Mike: There is a partial view for some fans on the promenade level and so some of fans do get a view.
GSB: One thing all fans can see is a comprehensive recycling and composting presence. Where do things stand at Citi Field?
Mike: Recycling and composting are challenging in New York City. We switched our recycling hauler about a year ago to RTS to help us be more aggressive in combating the challenges. Composting is expensive and there aren’t many places to take it. Right now we compost in the back-of-house only…
RTS recycling bins on the lower right field concourse at Citi Field (Photo credit: New York Mets)
GSB: …Meaning you compost organic material in the kitchens but the fans, or front-of-house, don’t have a composting option yet.
Mike: That’s right. Now, with back-of-house plus recycling, we divert about 40 percent of our waste from landfill. The good thing is that along with RTS and Aramark, our concessionaire, we are going to devise a comprehensive recycling-composting plan in the next few months so we can open up front-of-house. Doing so should get us to 80-85 percent diversion. And we’ll be going front-of-house at the same time as we continue to increase our veggie and fruit choices, much of it locally grown.
GSB: Good to hear. Now I notice that there are no solar panels here. Have you looked into it?
Mike: We’ve discussed it for several years. The problem for us is that our roof really isn’t that big. So solar-powered carports might be the more practical play. But there are complexities there, too. As you could tell when you walked to the office, across the street from our outfield wall is a string of auto body shops.
GSB: I’m well familiar with the “chop shops.”
Mike: Well, they’re not long for this world. The area is undergoing a redevelopment and there could be an impact on our parking lots during construction. So it’s difficult for us to invest in solar-topped carports, or anything else for that matter, in the parking area, at least in the short term.
GSB: So it ain’t easy, especially in the short term. Longer term, how committed to sustainability and the environment are Fred and Jeff Wilpon, the father and son tandem that owns the Mets?
Mike: During Citi Field’s construction, they were committed to building and operating a stadium that was state-of-the-art from a green perspective at that time. Technology has come a long way since we opened and with that opened up new possibilities for us to continually explore. We have inventoried our carbon footprint since 2016. That year, our footprint was 23,839 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MTCO2e), covering Scopes 1, 2 and 3. This includes team and staff travel to and from spring training in Port St. Lucie, Florida as well as fan travel to and from Citi Field. The goal is for us to better understand our footprint and become more efficient in how we go about reducing it, instead of just tackling the buzzwords that may be popular today.
GSB: The fan travel piece is a big deal as it is the biggest contributor to a team’s carbon footprint. Not all teams that measure carbon include fan travel. I know that the club is offsetting some of its carbon footprint through the purchase of carbon and water offsets.
Mike: We’ve done so for the past two ways, through a variety of projects, partnering on water restoration in the American west with Change The Course. On carbon, we’re working with South Pole to provide cleaner-burning cookstoves for women in East Africa. We’ve also invested in wind generation.
GSB: So the Mets have a strong green story to tell its fans. Are the Mets doing so?
Mike: This is where we have the greatest room for improvement. We need to let fans know what we’re doing. Management has talked about it — our concern is not being preachy.
GSB: You guys can do it; there is a sweet spot between not doing anything on one extreme and being too preachy on the other. You can adapt the late, great ex-Met relief pitcher Tug McGraw’s famous “Ya Gotta Believe!” mantra into “Ya Gotta Be Green!” There. My work is done here!