One Year Later, Beleaguered Park’s Prospects Looking Up

Monday, December 16, 2013

Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

One year ago, the long-beleaguered Flushing Meadows Corona Park faced an uncertain future.

Not only was the park inadequately maintained, as it had been for years, but three different development projects proposed in or near the park loomed large.

Today, thanks to effective advocacy by New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras and local groups like the Fairness Coalition of Queens and the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Conservancy, prospects for the park’s future appear brighter than many expected a year ago.

What was our role in helping that happen?

Last winter, the public review process began for the first of the three proposed projects, a 0.68-acre expansion the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center along a park access road.

While the hearings were officially focused on that project, the specter of all three proposals, understandably, was in the air. A consistent message was delivered by community advocates:  for too long, the Tennis Association had turned its back on park-users and the surrounding community.

Some opposed the project outright; others urged a more collaborative partnership between the USTA and its neighbors, in which the tennis association would invest in the park’s maintenance and improvement to mitigate the impacts of its growth. As the time neared for the City Council to weigh in on the proposal, it became clear that this latter approach could only be considered if parties on all sides had a reliable estimate of how much funding would be required to bring the park up to par.

“I needed to avoid using a random number” in negotiating a financial contribution to the park, Ferreras told The New York Times last month in an illuminating story about her negotiations with the City and the USTA.

So NY4P commissioned an independent study to estimate the park's current maintenance budget and the cost of upgrading it to the national standard for park care. Thanks to generous funding from the Altman Foundation, J.M. Kaplan Fund, and New York Community Trust, we were able to hire ETM Associates, the leading national expert in park maintenance cost estimating, to conduct the analysis. The firm has done similar analyses for parks worldwide, from Taiwan to London to Houston, as well as many in New York City.

The study estimated that maintaining Flushing Meadows Corona Park at the national standard would require about $2.4 million a year more than the City currently spends on its maintenance. And that data proved critical in helping all parties reach agreement on the amount the USTA will commit to the park annually for 23 years.

The same Times article tells the story of how the negotiations unfolded:

With its expansion to 42 acres with leased parkland from the city, the [tennis] association put $8 million into a fund for the park. “The association thought it would use the same calculator” for the portion of land, 0.68 acres, Ms. Ferreras remembered. “I said, ‘Absolutely not; there’s a new negotiator in town.' ”

Her opening “ask,” as she put it, for the new park alliance, was $18 million. The tennis association countered with $1 million. They met at $10 million.

A similar process unfolded this fall during final negotiations between Ferreras and the developers of the Willets West Mall, to be built on the Mets’ Citi Field parking lot, a space that was alienated – i.e., legally approved for private use – decades ago, but is on former parkland adjacent to the park. NY4P did not take a stance on the pros or cons of the overall development, but we advocated strongly that if the project was approved, an ongoing commitment by the development team to help fund park maintenance was essential.

When the New York City Council voted on October 9 to approve the project, the agreement included a commitment from the Queens Development Group, a partnership between Sterling Equities and The Related Companies, of $15.5 million for the park. Once again, the maintenance study that we commissioned proved to be a guiding force in the negotiations.

All said, Council Member Julissa Ferreras secured more than $25 million in private funds that will be dedicated to much-needed capital projects and ongoing maintenance and programming for the next 25 years, and no publicly usable parkland was lost.  (The USTA returned more than an acre of parkland to the Parks Department in exchange for the 0.68 acre alienated for its expansion.)

These funds will also help launch a new nonprofit, the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Alliance, that the Council Member is working with the Parks Department to establish for the ongoing stewardship of the park.  The alliance will raise additional private funding for the park, support volunteerism and programming that engages the community, and increase fiscal transparency on park-related decisions.

The third proposed project, a professional soccer stadium slated for at least 10 acres in the heart of the park, was roundly opposed by community and park advocates alike, including NY4P.  As we wrote in an Op-Ed in the Daily News last May, a stadium would “alter the nature of the park altogether.” The new Major League Soccer team took notice and are reportedly working on a deal to build a stadium in the Bronx instead.

Lastly, but not insignificantly, the park has taken center stage in an ongoing, citywide discussion about park equity both among advocates and the press – a discussion that’s sure to play a central role in the de Blasio’s administration’s park policy.

There’s no doubt that the profile of Flushing Meadows Corona Park has been raised.  What started as a crisis for the beloved park – the threat of more privatization without any benefit to park-users – has become an opportunity that will transform the park into a jewel in the city’s park system, thanks to the advocacy of Council Member Ferreras, a coalition of local organizations and residents, and New Yorkers for Parks.

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