September 12, 2012
Sports Plan Faces Fight
Community Opposition Swells inQueensOver Proposal for New Arenas and Mall.
An ambitious Bloomberg administration plan to remake a corner of Queens with two professional-league sports arenas and a roughly 1-million-square-foot mall is meeting with unexpected and growing opposition that could stymie the effort.
Although the projects are separate from each other, they are all in or near Flushing Meadows Corona Park and have roiled groups that accuse the city of eroding green space without considering the impact of an influx of traffic and thousands of new spectators and shoppers.
Importantly, the coalition of about a half-dozen groups has the initial support of the local City Council member—who, in the tradition of the council, has almost unilateral power to hold up necessary approvals.
The challenge could stall the projects, which are among Mayor Michael Bloomberg's signature development plans: an 8,000-seat U.S. Tennis Association stadium, a possible 25,000-seat Major League Soccer stadium—both in the park—and the mall on a gritty swath near Citi Field, across from the park.
More likely, it could force new concessions from developers as the groups push the City Council to look at the fallout of all three projects combined when voting on approvals for them individually.
"Nobody has created a comprehensive vision of what the future of Flushing Meadows Corona Park is going to look like," said Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, part of the coalition.
A Bloomberg spokesperson said the projects are vital to reviving the area. "In all of our conversations with Queens community groups, we hear the same message consistently: the borough needs more jobs and economic activity. These projects would meet that need in spectacular fashion and provide employment to thousands of Queens residents," said spokeswoman Julie Wood.
The developers expressed similar sentiment, saying they would work with the community.
The Willets Point development already went through an extensive public review and was approved in 2008. But the plan, now backed by a partnership of Related Cos. and Sterling Equities, was significantly revised and will begin undergoing an additional environmental review later this month. The USTA proposal is expected to face a review this fall. MLS, which has yet to strike a final deal with the city, also would be required to seek City Council support.
Council Member Julissa Ferreras, who represents the area, echoed concerns about the temporary loss of community soccer fields during construction, reduced access to the park, increased traffic, pollution, noise, safety, litter and the impact of the mall on mom-and-pops.
"I have an obligation to make sure that our community gets a voice in the process…The community needs to decide if these three different proposals are a good use of parkland," Ms. Ferreras said.
To be sure, some developers have already promised benefits to the community. MLS has pledged to refurbish public soccer fields on the site, make additional park improvements and minimize disruption, according to people familiar with the matter, which has helped it win support from a number of politicians and community groups.
Flushing Meadows Corona Park is the borough's largest park, where a mostly Latino and Asian immigrant population plays soccer, bikes and picnics. But the shabby, sprawling space has been plagued by funding shortages and neglect, park advocates say.
While new stadiums would undoubtedly create strains, they could also be an opportunity to make needed upgrades, some said. "It's been dependent on the ebbs and flows of public funding, which has led to fairly inconsistent maintenance," said Holly Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. "There really is an opportunity for partnerships there if these projects are going to go forward."
On a recent sunny afternoon, people enjoying the park expressed both support and concerns about the impact of the new developments. Juan Vidal, 70 years old, who lives in New Rochelle and rides his bike in the park, said he loves soccer but thinks Flushing Meadows is too cramped for a major-league stadium. "They should do it someplace else," he said.
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