Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
With change in Queens arriving rapidly, the Mets can preserve a piece of team history—and public good will—by helping to restore a part of the World's Fair from 50 years ago.
Buy a ticket to see the Mets take on the Giants on Friday, and you'll be giving directly to preserve an architectural giant. No, not Citi Field—certainly not Citi Field. That's the Queens ballpark that, according to The New Yorker, was erected as a temple to the Brooklyn Dodgers. The same ballpark that Deadspin describes as "a monument to the Mets' modern futility and clumsiness."
Unfortunately, it is much too late to save Shea Stadium. But for every ticket that sells on Friday, the Mets will give $5 to People for the Pavilion, an organization that is working to save the New York State Pavilion, the Philip Johnson–designed marvel and one of the few remaining vestiges of the 1964–65 World's Fair. The Pavilion opened to the world in April 1964, just five days after the Mets lost to the Pirates in their first game at Shea Stadium.
The team's history has always been connected with the fairgrounds, linked by more than just the 7 train. The Mets even added a patch to the team's 1964–65 uniforms to commemorate the 1964–65 World's Fair in New York. Both Shea Stadium and New York's World's Fair were the work of legendary planner Robert Moses. As Rory Costello writes for the Society for American Baseball Research: "Back in 1938, the 'Master Builder' described his plan to transform Flushing Meadows 'From Dump to Glory' in connection with the World's Fair of 1939, which was also held in New York City," he writes. "Moses was being literal—over 26 years, the site had accepted 50,000,000 cubic yards of refuse material."
Over the next 50 years, both the Mets and the New York State Pavilion returned from glory to dump. Shea Stadium was razed in 2009. The New York State Pavilion can still be saved—and for reasons both historic and pragmatic, it's within the Mets' interest to see that this happens.
According to The New York Times and Facebook, not to mention basic sports awareness, hardly anyone likes the Mets these days. Citi Field has the 11th worst attendance rate in baseball right now, despite sharing the largest city and market for baseball. (Of course, they share it with the Yankees, so.)
The team's problems go much deeper. As Capital New York explained back in 2012, the Mets took a $25 million bailout loan in 2010 from Major League Baseball to keep the lights on at Citi Field. The team's owners, Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, were implicated in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme and had exhausted the team's available credit elsewhere as a result of compounding debts.
Since then, the Mets, struggling to recover financially, got in bed with planners behind a controversial scheme for Queens—namely former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In a wide-ranging report from March, Gothamist's Max Rivlin-Nadler explained the circumstances behind the plan for Willets Point:
It was at the same time that the Mets were hemorrhaging money that the city began to aggressively push its redevelopment plan for Willets Point. And in June of 2012, Bloomberg announced that the City had awarded Sterling Equities Incorporated (the real estate company controlled by the Wilpons) the contract to redevelop the Willets Point area, with the City's capital fund paying $100 million for demolition, remediation, and infrastructure. The land itself would be sold to the Mets and their partner, Related Construction, for $1. All of a sudden, the Mets had a major new development project on the horizon, all for the cost of a candy bar.
The Bloomberg plan for Willets Point describes the area as "long-blighted" and details a mixed-use retail development to transform the area, which is mostly characterized by auto repair shops run by immigrants (long a feature of any visit to Shea Stadium). Critics suspect that the scheme will run short on promises for affordable housing and long on parking lots and displacement.
Property values in Flushing are booming right now, in no small part due to the work of the Chinese, Korean, and Latin American immigrants that make Queens New York's most diverse borough. According to a 2011 report from the New York State Comptroller's office, businesses in Flushing grew by 37.6 percent between 2000 and 2009, most of them small businesses, many of them run by foreign-born residents. These are the people that critics fear will be harmed by the plan under way from Bloomberg and the Mets.
So maybe the Mets could make up for some of those concerns by making good on an artifact from a past deal with another ambitious city planer. To be sure, restoring the New York State Pavilion doesn't deliver on affordable housing. But at the very least, it is exactly the kind of public amenity in Flushing-Meadows Park that critics say the Bloomberg administration gave away to private developers.
While the restoration of the New York State Pavilion is already underway, with a $5.8 million boost in the New York City budget confirmed in June, it is far from complete, and its future is less than certain. There are incredible ironies that marry the Mets to the Pavilion: Although Citi Field was designed to resemble Ebbets Field, home of the long-departed Brooklyn Dodgers, it was World's Fair planner Robert Moses with baseball honchos George McLaughlin and Bill Shea who tried but failed to install the New York Giants in Shea Stadium. (That makes Friday's game between the Mets and the Giants something of a baseball–planning grudge match.)
The Mets lost a big chunk of their history when they lost Shea Stadium. Fans might not know it, but they would lose another bit of the team's history if the New York State Pavilion isn't turned around. Queens seems to realize what's at stake—all the more reason for the Mets organization and base to support the preservation of the Pavilion, perhaps with a new purpose that recognizes and encourages the global diversity of the borough. At the very least, it might earn the Mets some new fans.