Incredulity and perplexity reigned last Friday during a City Council hearing regarding the state of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, with Parks Department staff enduring the brunt of questioning at the hands of a Parks Committee largely made up of Queens lawmakers.
The questioning surrounded the current state of a park accustomed to a fraction of the attention left over from its more famous brethren. Dollar and staffing figures revealed a dearth of resources in the face of escalating need.
To the untrained ear, the takeaway of the hearing was the borough’s flagship park continues its existence as a lower-priority public space. What else is new, right? But according to some, the same lawmakers seeking answers should question themselves.
“Having spent my whole life in and around Flushing Meadows, I can attest to the fact that it has not received the attention and resources a park of its size and high utilization deserves,” said Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), who convened the hearing at the behest of the Fairness Coalition of Queens, a collective of community groups opposing three projects seeking a home in FMCP.
Those proposals were verboten at the hearing, hanging over the day’s proceedings but remaining largely unacknowledged.
The committee questioned Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski about the state of the park, after agency head Veronica White was a no-show. But the exchange occurred in the tight confines of the “no future projects” dictum. Staffing, funds and upkeep at FMCP were all on the table; but for all intents and purposes, a 25,000-seat Major League Soccer stadium, 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall next to Citi Field and expansion of the United States Tennis Association’s National Tennis Center were not up for discussion.
“The City Council will hold public hearings in accordance with the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, at the appropriate time for each project,” Ferreras said during her opening statement. “As we look at these projects holistically and consider their impact on FMCP, I will work with my colleagues in government to find ways to protect this irreplaceable park.”
The resulting hearing offered the strange cognitive dissonance that can only result from a conversation that dances around a issue.
“The entire hearing was supposed to be about the conditions and needs for Flushing Meadows,” said New York City Park Advocates’ Geoffrey Croft. “But every single one of the electeds was trying to talk about everyone else’s responsibilities.”
Still, Lewandowski and FMCP Administrator Janice Melnick offered up some fresh figures.
Flushing Meadows hosts a total of 22 concessions, some year-round such as Terrace on the Park, and others seasonal. A chunk of the revenue generated by those entities goes back to the city, essentially mainlined into the general fund that the mayor and Council allocate during the annual budget dance. Cumulatively they generated $3.4 million in the fiscal year ending January 2012.
But parsing the figures showed that Terrace on the Park’s $2.5 million infusion into the general fund last year was nearly identical to the $2.6 million in rent paid by the USTA and Mets — combined.
The revelation of the figures prompted Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) to say, “There’s something fishy in those numbers.”
The Fairness Coalition staged a protest in the monsoon-like weather outside before the hearing, demanding equitable treatment and rejuvenation of the park, especially considering some of its high-profile tenants.
With occupants and businesses operating in the park, some advocates and elected officials have pushed for the creation of a new conservancy that can capture some funds generated within the park and direct them towards the restoration and upkeep of Flushing Meadows. The park’s existing conservancy has only $5,000 on hand for park improvements.
The proposal for a new one is geared at adding to the upkeep of FMCP, which cost the Parks Department $11.6 million dollars last year. That figure does not represent money directed expressly towards the upkeep of green space since it includes the upkeep of entities like the Queens Zoo and World’s Fair Marina.
“The private entities that are housed in the park — the US Tennis Association and the New York Mets, for example — don’t contribute a dime toward park upkeep,” said Holly Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, which has been a proponent of a public-private partnership to help fund the upkeep of the park. “Clearly, for the park to be maintained at an acceptable level, the massive discrepancy between what this park is generating for the city and for private beneficiaries and the level of resources being put back into the park must change.”
Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) announced his plan to give the public-private alliance model a distinct Robin Hood-esque touch. He plans to introduce a bill that would take 20 percent of funds from park conservancies with over $5 million and guide them towards parks that received a grade of “unsatisfactory” for two consecutive years.
Such a model would be blatantly illegal, according to Croft. “He’s trying to legislate where people’s donations go. You can’t. It’s against the law,” he said.
There was also discussion of diverting concession-generated city funds directly back into the park, a practice at the heart of a recent lawsuit filed by New York City Park Advocates against the Parks Department. In essence, the advocacy group argues the City Charter expressly prohibits the diversion of funds destined for municipal coffers.
If successful, it would render the Central Park Conservancy’s current contract with the city moot, since it gives the nonprofit a slice of all city-bound concession revenue over $6 million. Such a model would be wrong-headed for Flushing Meadows, according to Croft.
“It’s the wrong solution to a big problem,” he said.