BY NICK BUGLIONE
Before there was a LaGuardia Airport, there was a little field in
Flushing that brought Queens to the forefront of aviation and raised its visitors to touch
the sky by plane and by blimp.
Today, that field is lost benefit a puddle of wetlands, fears of
mosquitoes breeding, and fences to keep children from playing in the mire. The field used
to be called Flushing Airport.
Aviation played a
significant role in the development of Queens in the earlier part of the 20th century.
Flushing Airport opened in 1927 and quickly became one of the busiest airports in the
Yet with the completion of LaGuardia
Airport in 1939, a sizable portion of the airports commuter business was drawn away.
In its glory years, the
site of the former Flushing Airport was
once used as a base for Goodyear blimps. There has been a recent proposal to make the site
a "Blimpport," the first of its kind in the world.
Photo Courtesy of Alan Gross
As the community became increasingly
suburban, accidents and near misses became almost inevitable. The airports tiny
runway was occasionally mistaken by 727 pilots for nearby LaGuardia
and the large planes would fly low over the heads of local residents before being
re-directed by the LaGuardia control tower.
During the 1964 Worlds Fair, two
Goodyear Blimps used Flushing Airport as a summer base. "They stayed there for
several months for two years in a row," said Alan Gross, a Flushing resident who has
lived near the airport since 1952.
At least one airship returned annually
until the mid-70s when the airports future became uncertain.
By that time controversy began to surround
the airport following the crash of a light aircraft into a nearby house. Although the
airport was being used only by skywriting planes and the occasional blimp, accidents and
mishaps had sparked a community outcry that forced its closing by the early 1980s.
But despite the vocal opposition, there was
a significant movement to keep Flushing Airport operational.
Since its closing, water from the
surrounding marsh has flooded the airports abandoned runways and decaying hangers
and the city has begun selling off parcels of the airports land in what is now the
College Point Corporate Park, opening the opportunity for commercial development.
Shopping sites now line 20th Avenue, and
the New York Times color printing plant was built on what used to be the eastside
of the airports property. Within the last year, a movie complex and a Toys R
Us toy store opened on the south end of the field.
Though speculation on the
future of Flushing Airport has grown, officials from the New York City Economic
Development Corporation (EDC) which currently owns the land said their top
priority has been cleaning up the neglected site.
With the advent of the West Nile virus last
summer, and its resurgence again this season, city officials have expressed concern that
the abandoned and water drenched land might be playing host to a number of infected
The former Flushing Airport site
as it appears today, 25 percent
marsh and wetlands. The site has been closed off to the public for
nearly two decades now, and has recently been cleaned due to
West Nile virus concerns from
the dormant water.
Tribune Photo by Ira Cohen
"Our concern was that the old,
dilapidated equipment and holes in the airfields tarmac would be ideal mosquito
breeding locations," explained Senator Frank Padavan. Compounding local
politicians fears was the fact that the surrounding neighborhood was the epicenter
of the virus when it first broke out a year ago.
"Unless a major remediation effort was
made, involving larvicides as well as the removal of abandoned equipment, the site would
constitute a major health threat to College Point residents and workers," said
The EDC has now hired a private contractor
to embark on a $25,000 cleanup project.
Tires, metal drums and other forms of
debris were disposed of by heavy machinery, said Janel Patterson, spokeswoman for the EDC.
Patterson added that the EDC has sent out inspectors to see if the job was satisfactorily
The cleanup project, estimated to take 10
days, involved about 75 percent of the airports 78-acre site. The other 25 percent
is considered to be freshwater wetlands, which falls under the jurisdiction of the State
Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
identified by the presence of vegetation only found in soils that are in water year
round," said Joe Pane from the DEC.
The subject of the wetlands at Flushing
Airport is currently playing a significant role in what will become of the land which,
since its closing, has become a preserve of vegetation and other wildlife.
"We submitted a plan to the State
Department of Environmental Conservation regarding the wetlands," said Patterson.
"Were waiting to hear from them."
The DEC is currently attempting to
ascertain what amount of the land is developable and what must be preserved as wetlands.
Once that is complete, Patterson said the
EDC will send out a formal request for proposals to see what local developers can dream up
for the site.
DEC officials said no time frame exists for
when they will be able to publicly announce their findings.
"The city has plans for development
for part of the parcel in exchange for wetlands enhancement," said DEC spokeswoman
Mary Ellen Kris.
"In my mind, and as a
kid, I never saw the blimps not coming back to Flushing Airport," said blimp
enthusiast and president of Airships Unlimited Inc., Alan Gross.
Gross is a determined man with a dream and,
along with his partner John Taylor, he has proposed the building of a blimp port on the
grounds of the former Flushing Airport, transforming it into the College Point Airship
According to Gross, the facility would
consist of a large, triangular, grass, take-off and landing area, and would include a
parking and observation complex on the north edge of the property along 20th Avenue. The
creation of a "lighter-than-air" museum and learning center are also in the
works, as well as a them restaurant.
The airport would be able to maintain the
operation and mooring of about two or three blimps, Gross said. These airships, usually
100 to 200 feet long, do not require runways and only need an approximately 1,000-foot
circle for landing and maneuvering.
"The facility would become a major
attraction over time," said Gross, explaining that an airship park would attract a
great deal of tourism to the borough.
"The blimp operation would also ensure
that a lot of green space remains," Gross added, noting that blimps are relatively
pollution and noise-free, guaranteeing minimal disruption to the community and surrounding
ecology. He added that such a park would also create jobs.
Though Gross could not estimate how much
the project would cost, he said it would surely be a multi-million dollar undertaking.
"Were working with a contractor
and looking into ways to get federal, state and local government funding," said
While the plan is still in its
developmental stages, a number of community members have voiced their approval for the
College Point Airship Park.
College Point civic leader Sabina Cardali
commented, "We absolutely need it. Its a fine project that Alan Gross
According to Marilyn Bitterman, district
manager of Community Board 7, the board has not yet taken an official position on the
"It hasnt come before the board
so at this time theres really no comment," she said. However, Bitterman did
confirm that the board is seeking to utilize Flushing Airport as some sort of aviation
"Theres going to be a
considerable number of plans," said Taylor, executive vice president of Airships
Unlimited, explaining that theirs will not be the only proposal on the table for Flushing
Airport. "We obviously will be in a competitive bidding situation."
For more information on the plan for the
College Point Airship Park, visit its Internet site at www.blimpport.com.
Richard Schack and Richard
Fasanella contributed to this story