A trio of big-ticket projects has put Flushing Meadows Corona Park in the sights of community activists, parks advocates and Queens residents; its chewed up fields, persistent flooding and dilapidated state have become part of a broader discussion about the economic inequality between parks across the city.
In Flushing Meadows’ case, the shoddy conditions justified pushes by the city and developers to find alternate uses, including an expansion of the United States Tennis Association’s grounds, the creation of a mall alongside Citi Field and a Major League Soccer stadium.
The renewed focus on the park also left many wondering why FMCP was ever allowed to deteriorate in the first place. The City Council’s Committee on Parks and Recreation hopes to get answers next Friday, June 7, when it will hold an oversight hearing into the condition and needs of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
The gathering will start at 1 p.m. at the 16th floor committee room at 250 Broadway, allowing for public testimony while also giving the seven-member committee a chance to question Parks Commissioner Veronica White.
It will be a rare turn for Flushing Meadows, a park that otherwise does not seem to garner much attention at the municipal level. It has 18 full-time staff members to maintain and repair what was 1,250 acres of parkland that mysteriously shrunk to just under 900 acres, according to the Parks Department's web site.
The Parks Department has not responded to months and months of inquiries by the Queens Chronicle, seeking an explanation for the shrinking acreage listed on the city's own FMCP-dedicated web page.
The Council’s parks committee includes four members of the borough’s delegation, with Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) pressing for the hearing at the behest of the Fairness Coalition of Queens, a group that has been fighting the three recent projects proposed for the park.
“It is my goal that the park’s budgetary, safety and maintenance issues will be addressed,” the lawmaker said in a statement. “Many New Yorkers who do not live in Queens are unaware of the issues this park has faced, and it is time we all start thinking and talking about it.”
The hearing was sparked, in part, by some of the very same complaints used by the city to justify projects that would have eaten away at parkland. For example, the sorry state of the Pool of Industry was a selling point for MLS when it pushed the creation of a 25,000-seat soccer stadium atop the Fountain of the Planets. That project now appears to be dead, but MLS did bring up a good point.
“Why is the Fountain of the Planets one of the dirtiest parts of the park?” asked the Fairness Coalition’s Will Sweeney, who said FMCP has been “mismanaged, understaffed and ignored for too long.”
The state of the fountain is just one part of Sweeney’s longer list of ills, which includes: cars parked on the grass during the U.S. Open; a strategy for the persistent flooding in the park; the seemingly abandoned strategic plan for FMCP and accountability for the alleged corruption perpetrated by the now-deceased Estelle Cooper, who was charged with stealing $50,000 originally meant for the park.
Sweeney hopes all these questions and more will be addressed by White when she sits before the committee. But there’s one that sticks in the craw of most park activists: money.
FMCP stands as one of the city’s most underfunded and understaffed parks. Unlike its marquee siblings in Manhattan and Brooklyn, it doesn’t benefit from wealthy donors funneling cash into a nonprofit organization aimed at maintaining the park.
Councilman and Parks Committee member Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) is wondering if Flushing Meadows is really getting an equitable amount of funding, considering it’s home to the USTA and the Mets.
“How much do they give? How much do the Mets give back?” Dromm said, adding he’s skeptical the tenants contribute much at all. “Why are they getting away with a free pass?”
For Sweeney, bridging that income gap should be a priority for the city and committee.
“We have to make sure that the money that is generated in the park is directly invested back in the park,” he said. “We can no longer be a cash machine for Manhattan mayors to finance beautiful things in other parts of the city.”
Ferreras sounded as if she’d be the one to press the issue.
“There is no reason for FMCP to be treated any less than Central Park or Prospect Park, especially when it has such a rich history as the home of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs,” she said.