New Yorkers for Parks

A plan to build a soccer stadium raises this question: If you have enough money, you really can buy anything in New York?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears to have found a partner with the financial muscle to bring a Major League Soccer stadium to the largest public green space in Queens, Flushing Meadows–Corona Park. It’s a project he’s been pushing for awhile, and now it looks closer than ever to becoming reality.

But there are urgent questions about how this for-profit enterprise will displace the ordinary New Yorkers who currently use the park in huge numbers. How much should cities should be willing to give up when it comes to encouraging private investment? Is it worth trading away the core of a neighborhood’s vital park?

The plan for the stadium, which I first wrote about late last year, is now apparently riding on money from Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Mahyan, the billionaire deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and scion of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. Mansour’s investment group owns the Manchester City team in England, and is said to be willing to pony up $100 million for rights to an expansion team. The stadium for the franchise would be privately financed to the tune of $340 million, but it would be built on 13 acres of public parkland smack-dab in the middle of one of the city’s most heavily used parks. The stadium site is “at the heart of public space in a park that has already been chopped up for private use,” according to Holly Leicht, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. Her group came out in opposition to the plan earlier this week.

Bloomberg has pooh-poohed every concern that members of the public and the media have brought up. It has become almost a cartoonish manifestation of the mayor’s now legendary disregard and disdain for criticism, well chronicled by Capital New York, among other local publications.

The mayor’s much-touted PlaNYC "for a greener, greater New York" has as one of its goals that every New Yorker should live within a 10-minute walk of a park. But when it comes to Flushing Meadows, a 1,255-acre facility that suffers from lack of maintenance and yet is hugely popular with the low-income immigrant population of the surrounding neighborhoods, the mayor is dismissive. From an article in the New York Post:

"It’s not irreplaceable," the mayor said of the 13 acres in Flushing Meadows that soccer promoters are trying to acquire for a 25,000-seat stadium.

"In fact, there’s an old airport, Flushing Airport, which is going to be turned into a park. So the total parkland would be the same," added the mayor.

But that proposed fix has drawn strong criticism from Flushing Meadows advocates. The Flushing Airport site is in College Point, a mostly white neighborhood that has little public transit access and is effectively worlds away from the working-class immigrant neighborhoods that surround Flushing Meadows.

Leicht told me that her group had conducted an experiment to see just how far the College Point location is from the neighborhoods that now use Flushing Meadows as their backyard. From the heart of the Corona neighborhood, she said, it takes about 10 minutes to walk to the edge of Flushing Meadows, and about 25 minutes to get to the proposed stadium site. Walking to the College Point site more than three miles away, she said, takes at least an hour and 15 minutes, through a bleak industrial area and a maze of highway ramps. In other words, no one will do it. And even if they did, the site is on a wetland that floods frequently.

Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, issued a statement on the College Point proposal through a group called the Fairness Coalition of Queens: “What the Mayor said is outrageous. His plan to force working class people of color to rent their park away to a billionaire for $1 a year in exchange for parkland in a wealthier, white neighborhood is insulting. It's out of touch and it's unjust. We are calling on all elected officials in New York City to denounce this."

Leicht wrote an op-ed detailing New Yorkers for Parks’ opposition to the plan:

Building a stadium on this site will alter not just the site itself, but the nature of the park altogether. The footprint of the arena would be up to 13 acres, but the directly affected acreage, as defined by MLS’s proposed circulation roads and pathways, would be at least double that. …

It’s important to recognize who would be most negatively affected by this proposed project. This section of the park is predominantly used by residents of the surrounding park-starved communities of Flushing, Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights – low- and middle-income neighborhoods that fall well below the city’s standard of 2.5 acres of open space per 1000 residents.  Nearly 23 percent of the people living in these neighborhoods are 18 or younger. Childhood obesity in Corona, on the park’s western edge, is 51 percent, the highest in the city. 

Leicht says her group thinks that the city should reopen the search for a different location, as the potential loss to the public would be too great if construction went forward on the Flushing Meadows site. But the league has said the alternatives are all cost-prohibitive.

MLS gave a statement to Capital New York expressing its position:

"M.L.S. has committed to replacing the parkland acre for acre and making significant investments in the park beyond the fields," M.L.S. spokeswoman Risa Heller said in a statement. "The dialogue with the City, electeds and community leaders regarding those commitments will continue throughout the approvals process."

On thing everyone agrees on is that Flushing Meadows–Corona is in rough shape. That’s in large part because it is understaffed, with only 18 full-time workers paid by the city to maintain its vast expanse. Central Park is about two-thirds the size, but has nearly 300 people on staff, almost all of whom are paid for by the Central Park Conservancy.

You might think that the major sports powers that already run major stadium facilities within Flushing Meadows — the New York Mets and the United States Tennis Association, sponsor of the U.S. Open — would have to contribute to the upkeep of the park. You would be wrong. It’s not surprising that community advocates are skeptical that this time would be different, especially since the construction of the stadium would wipe out the very space that needs improvement.

Opposition to the MLS plan has been getting more vocal. Architecture critic Justin Davidson wrote an eloquent piece in New York magazine in which he declared, “…parkland is different. It is the opposite of real estate, an abiding corrective to a rapacious market.”

But will this be the proof that parkland isn’t different at all? That if you have enough money, you really can buy anything in New York? Even the scarce recreational space of the working class?

Mansour’s deep-pocketed involvement in the deal is pressing that issue. One elected official has questioned whether the city should be dealing with a leader of a nation with a spotty human rights record that’s been called out just in the last few months by the U.S. State Department.

That may be a worthy concern. But the way this deal is being handled, we might need to get our own house in order before worrying about someone else’s.

Top Image: Soccer fields that would be affected by the proposed stadium construction. (Courtesy of New Yorkers for Parks)

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