Protesters Give MLS Yellow Card At Meeting
By MEGAN MONTALVO
After making two comprehensive presentations, Major League Soccer officials have made their intent of “bringing the world’s sport to the world’s park” explicitly clear.
In an auditorium filled to the brim with supporters, many of whom were local soccer leagues and student athletes, MLS Commissioner Don Garber took to the stage at Queens Theater on Dec. 4 to present plans to build a 25,000 seat stadium at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
Among promises of improving the existing soccer fields that local teams currently use at the park, Garber also displayed a slide show detailing the creation of 2,100 construction-related jobs, which are expected to go to unions, in addition to a combination of 150 full-time and 700 part-time jobs slated for community members once the stadium opens.
“We will be a great community service partner here in Queens,” said Garber, who is a self-described ‘Queens boy.’ “If we are able to finalize the stadium, this will be our home as well. We want to make the park prettier. We want to invest money to be able to do that.”
As outlined by his presentation, Garber stated that MLS’ enhancements for beautifying the landscape consist of working on storm prevention, “spending millions and millions of dollars” to upgrade all the existing public fields to all-weather terrain, and “repairing those fountains that have been closed since 1964.”
Though the projected start of construction will not take place until 2016, MLS officials said they have been actively seeking a number of sites to replace parkland acre-for-acre.
“By contract, every acre that is used to build the stadium will be replaced,” Garber said, noting that less than two acres of the stadium’s footprint is grass today.
The stadium’s footprint will be an estimated 10 to 13 acres, a majority of which will replace the existing Fountain of Planets and its surrounding concrete.
“It’s very important to point out here that this Fountain of Planets is not accessible to the public today,” Garber said. “We hope to be able to fill that in and do it in a way where we are managing storm water management. Obviously we’ve got to find the right way to do that working with the proper environmental people. All of the land around the stadium will be accessible to the public.”
In addition to the planned 25,000 seats, the commissioner also said that sometime in the next 30 years, MLS will seek to add another 10,000 seats to the stadium.
“We will not take any more land. We will not have to raise any roots. We will not build it any higher,” Garber said. “What we will do is build a 25,000 seat stadium and inside that, be able to expand.”
Chunks vs. Patches
The day before the town hall, MLS President Mark Abbott presented an extensive slide show to community leaders and local elected officials at Borough Hall.
Among similar details mentioned by Garber, the presentation included statistical information, parking logistics, game scheduling and traffic.
While many of the elected officials focused on the validity of a MLS survey, wherein the findings claim that “71 percent of Queens voters support the plan to build a new MLS stadium, while only 21 percent oppose it,” one of the attendees raised an entirely different concern.
Donovan Finn, a Queens resident and SUNY Stony Brook professor of urban policy and environmental design, expressed firm opposition to the stadium’s construction, saying that from an ecological standpoint, the plan is flawed.
“Everybody keeps talking about how the Fountain of Planets is a dirty, old pond,” Finn said. “The reality is that it’s a stop-over place for migrating birds. You can look even today, the Flushing Creek runs right into that reservoir, and from there it runs right into the lake. It’s a naturally-occurring body of water.”
According to Finn, who attended both MLS presentations, if a stadium were to be built over the fountain, there could be “potential for massive storm water flooding and an enormous ecological impact.”
“The obvious answer to fixing the fountain is not to build a stadium over it. The answer is to hook the pipes back up, clean and dredge it out and get it running again,” Finn said. “MLS has said they have everything all worked out, but it’s another story to actually see their plans. I’d like to see specifically how they plan on addressing the potential flooding.”
In addition to a concern for misplaced wildlife, Finn also said that there are many problems with the idea of replacing parkland.
“From a scientific perspective, patch dynamics basically states that patches of anything are less healthy than big chunks of something,” Finn said. “If you carve out a big chunk of the park for a private enterprise and then look for replacement parkland elsewhere, it will never be the same as having the original land as a whole. Once it is gone, it’s gone.”
While Finn remains adamantly against the stadium’s construction, MLS Spokeswoman Risa Heller assured that the ecological impact is being taken into account.
“MLS has a team of experts that have been involved since day one in understanding the existing environment to inform the design process,” Heller said. “Based on their work to date, we don’t anticipate any significant impacts to wildlife.”
As horns, cheers and applause sounded throughout Garber’s presentation on Monday night, a small group of protesters held signs of opposition in the theater’s basement, where a live video feed showed attendees what was going on upstairs.
Messages reading “Protect Our Park,” “No Land Grab For Corporate Profit” and “Our Park is Not For Sale” were written in both English and Spanish by the protestors, which was primarily comprised of members from the Fairness Coalition of Queens – a coalition of community-based organizations and concerned residents formed to “ensure that all new uses or proposed redesigns in the area of Flushing Meadows Corona Park are undertaken in a fair and responsible manner.”
“We want our park saved,” said coalition member Leandra Requena, who has lived in Jackson Heights for 30 years. “We are offended because MLS uses the magic word of ‘jobs’ to sell their proposal. They are liars. We are here to stop them from cheating the people.”
After conducting a series of smaller town hall meetings earlier this year, coalition members expressed frustration with not being able to ask questions directly to MLS officials in the main auditorium.
“It feels like they orchestrated this whole thing so that all the supporters are in the auditorium, and all us with serious concerns were in the basement,” Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates, said. “It’s been a joke from day one. It’s sad that this community has to go through this. Clearly, the opposition has come out in numbers.”
While the protestors asserted that they were separated from the auditorium as a public relations ploy, MLS Spokeswoman Risa Heller denied the claim, citing that there were “many, many supporters in the overflow room - as once the room got full that’s where people were directed.”
“Any suggestion that our town hall wasn’t open to the public is sour grapes. This was a come one, come all event,” Heller said in an email. “We handed out fliers in the park for the past two weekends, sent invitations to small business around the park, advertised on social media since Friday, passed our fliers at subway stations and had stories in the newspaper. We are thrilled with the huge numbers of people who turned out to learn about and support the plan and look forward to hearing more from the community as we continue to engage in this process.”
Reach Reporter Megan Montalvo at (718) 357-7400 Ext. 128 or mmontalvo@ queenstribune.com.