As cars were lining up to leave the Citi Field parking lot after a Mets win, hundreds of protestors entered the gates for the final stretch of their march Sunday from Our Lady of Sorrows on 104th Street, never taking a break from rhyming chants in English and Spanish or banging the bottoms of buckets.
For them, the message was clear — tell the City Council to say no to the impending vote on the Willets Point proposal to build a mall on the Citi Field parking lot.
The plan, which would cost $3 billion to construct, includes a 1.4 million-square-foot mall developed by the Queens Development Center, a partnership between Sterling Equities and the Related Companies. Many in the Corona community and neighboring areas believe it is not the proper way to use the space.
“We are an old community here in Corona,” Monsignor Thomas Healy, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows, said to a group of hundreds of people in front of the church. “We need affordable housing much more than we need the largest mall in the city,” the pastor said.
Many of the signs carried by participants said in English or Spanish that affordable housing was a priority.
“Coming to this parish every week is 2,000 children,” Healy said. “Two thousand children. And they come from families who live in little apartments.”
In 2008, the original plan was different, providing 2,000 units of low- to moderate-income housing in Willets Point, across the street from Citi Field.
“They promised years ago affordable housing,” Maria Julia Echert, a member of Make the Road New York, said. “And it didn’t happen.”
Instead, the plan is to build the shopping mall, with shops, restaurants and a garage. Additional parking would be on 126th Street, across from the stadium, where many auto body shops now exist.
“There are seven malls in the area,” Echert said. “They’re saying it’s something different this time, but it’s not.”
Fans watched from their tailgates and drivers from their cars as protestors passed through, walking from 104th Street to 108th Street on 37th Avenue and then down Roosevelt Avenue under the rumbling of the No. 7 train to the entrance of Citi Field. Some came up and asked questions, others honked and waved in support.
“I hope this message is clear,” Healy said in front of Citi Field, after the crowd was told to move to the sidewalk by police. “Some people will become very wealthy. But not us.”
Jorim Rhee, a spokesperson for MinKwon Center in Flushing, said she thought the protest was highly efficient: “This is great – you see all these different organizations, faith-based, all these neighboring areas,” Rhee said. “I think we’re all unified. The current plan doesn’t put the community first.”
Residents from surrounding neighborhoods, such as Flushing, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Forest Hills, came out to sing songs and hold signs in opposition of the proposal. Some shouted “The people united, will never be defeated.”
A report released on Sunday by the Fairness Coalition of Queens found that 83 percent of a survey of more than 1,200 respondents said they did not feel another mall is needed in the area, and that 70 percent wanted a guarantee of affordable housing.
Almost 90 percent indicated that Flushing Meadows Park was important to them and their family.
“One of the things worth preserving is Flushing Meadows Park,” said Jack Eichenbaum, an urban geographer from Flushing and borough historian.
The park, with its Unisphere and history from two World’s Fairs, is a staple in the community, and has always been important to Echert.
“We celebrate birthdays there, ride bikes there,” she said. “It’s in my heart. Even when I got married, I went there to take a walk.”
The neighborhood has new buildings that are already too expensive for some of the residents, according to Carlos Peralta, of Elmhurst, who has lived in the area for 35 years.
“It changes only for the rich people,” Peralta said. “Only thing I can see, people who come from other countries, we must go back because there’s nothing else here. You think it’s a life, but it’s not a life.”