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Queens Chronicle

CB 6 eyes delayed call on USTA land

March vote seen for tennis center; opponents seek parkland protection

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Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 10:39 am, Thu Feb 28, 2013.

The US Open is not the only place where the United States Tennis Association can draw an overflow crowd.

More than 100 people turned out at the Feb. 13 meeting of Community Board 6, where the USTA continued its push for plans for a multi-year $500 million construction project at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

The USTA and the Parks Department have filed a joint application to add a strip of city-owned property totaling 0.68 acre to the more than 40 already leased by the group.

The process by which the city “alienates” public land requires a series of public hearings. The USTA will not offer an equal amount of parkland to replace the acreage that would be lost.

CEO Gordon Smith of the USTA, joined by Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowsky, laid out the benefits to Queens and the city should the project be allowed to go through.

Smith cited the $756 million in economic impact the US Open has on the city, and the jobs from full time to part time and seasonal work ranging from the three weeks of the Open to six months of the year.

He said the event draws people from around the country and around the world, and that the proposed construction would allow 10,000 more people per day during the tournament.

“We’re good neighbors ... We like to think we are the best possible postcard for Queens,” Smith said.

The Billie Jean King Tennis Center hosts the Open, the fourth and final Grand Slam event in the annual professional tennis calendar. USTA officials said the small swathe of land it seeks is the linchpin of a project that would result in a new Louis Armstrong Stadium on its current site.

The Grandstand Stadium, currently attached to Louis Armstrong, would be eliminated and replaced by a new freestanding arena on the opposite end of the complex.

That section of the tennis center currently is home to a block of practice courts, and is accessible through a labyrinth of narrow walkways. The strip of land would allow the tennis association to move the practice courts 30 feet to the south, offering freer access to the new Grandstand Stadium.

CB 6 Chairman Joseph Hennessy said the board would vote on the measure at its March meeting.

Members of the public speaking out in favor of the plan outnumbered opponents by about three to one.

Supporters included business leaders, construction trade unions and people whose families use the facilities, which are open to the public for 11 months out of the year when the US Open is not going on.

While the public courts are more expensive to rent than those in other city parks, several residents said they and in some cases generations of their families have been able to take advantage of the facilities and instruction available in Flushing Meadows.

“It offers great opportunities,” said Emir Lewis.

William Weise, a retired police officer, said he never even took up tennis until the Open came to Flushing Meadows from the old West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills in 1978, and that many in his family have taken advantage of it since.

Jerry Mezillo, a union electrician, backed Smith’s contention that the expansion would result in about 800 high-paying, local construction jobs over the life of the project.

“I’ve piped a lot of those practice courts myself,” he said.

Jack Friedman, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, and Seth Bornstein, executive director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation, supported Smith’s economic numbers, and said losing the small slip of land being sought is justified by the positive impact.

“This is a no-brainer,” Friedman said.

Opponents included residents who live in the vicinity of and use the park, open space advocates and community and environmental groups.

While Hennessy limited discussion on Feb. 13 to the USTA application and the USTA alone, several speakers said the application should be taken in the context of building plans by Major League Soccer and a consortium led by the New York Mets ownership in and near Flushing Meadows.

Others focused on the USTA’s proposal itself.

Will Sweeney of the Fairness Coalition was one of several people pointing out that the USTA does not intend to honor the tradition of entities replacing the parkland they take over.

“You would think the Parks Department would be the first ones calling for replacement of the land,” Ed Westley of Community Board 3 said. “In this case, not.”

“It is a chipping away of our parkland,” Anna Dioguardi said. “Where does it stop?”

Sweeney reiterated that the entire complex is located on property that is a natural wetland, an argument that also is being made by opponents of the MLS stadium plan.

Sweeney also cited an environmental impact study that he said states more than 400 trees would be destroyed to acommodate construction.

Smith said only about 10 percent of that number would be destroyed, and the rest would be relocated, while the USTA would be required to replace any trees that are lost.

Critics on CB 6 noted that while Arthur Ashe Stadium and the rest of the complex are the jewels that the USTA claims, the rest of the park in which they sit has fallen into disrepair over the decades since the 1964 World’s Fair.

And any money that the city realizes from the US Open and the year-round activities at Billie Jean King are not dedicated to Flushing Meadows or even the Parks Department specifically, but sent straight into the city’s general fund, they noted.

Smith was noncommittal when Steven Goldberg, CB 6’s second vice chairman, and then Hennessy asked if the USTA would agree to set aside money every year for maintenance and upgrades to the park as a whole.

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