Flushing native and Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber considers Queens home. He grew up in Bayside, using Flushing Meadows Corona Park the same way most residents do today.
“I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Queens guy. Flushing Meadows Corona Park was a big part of my upbringing,” Garber said during a gathering with local press on Friday.
Garber’s blowing kisses to his native borough, last week’s press gathering and more planned meetings with residents and community groups kick off an airing of ideas and outreach, as the league hopes to build a stadium in the borough’s largest park.
While some residents and community groups may share Garber’s love of Queens, they do not endorse his league’s big-ticket plan for its 20th franchise.
The league is currently ironing out details with the city over a 25,000-seat stadium that would rest at the north end of the park, costing up to $350 million and using 10 to 13 acres currently occupied by the Fountain of the Planets, or Industry Pond.
Barring any hiccups, construction would start in 2014 and be completed by 2016 the latest, according to the commissioner. Yet the devil is in the details.
The league’s filings with the city call for a 35,000-seat structure, a provisional measure in case increasing popularity would mandate an expansion. The 10,000 additional seats would not increase the stadium’s footprint, according to league’s spokeswoman Risa Heller.
The plan must go through the Universal Land Use Review Procedure, face a council vote and also get approval at the state level. MLS must also alienate and create park space elsewhere in the city to replace the lost acreage within the park.
ULURP calls for an Environmental Impact Statement that provides a big-picture look at the stadium’s effect on the surrounding area.
The EIS will quantify many of the uncertainties in contention at the moment. But its timing allows MLS to base its environmental assessment on the area’s condition during the first build year. The technicality allows MLS to ignore a planned redevelopment of Willets Point and a proposed one-acre expansion of the United States Tennis Association’s facilities within the park — possibly painting a rosier picture.
The league is confident its proposal will ultimately be seen as a positive addition.
The franchise and stadium would fit the character of a global borough with an immigrant population keeping soccer close to its heart, Garber said, adding the league checked potential sites citywide before settling on Flushing Meadows.
The stadium comes with promises of increased economic activity to the tune of 2,100 to 2,300 construction jobs, and an additional 160 full-time and 750 part-time jobs. The league also plans to improve existing soccer fields within the park, add volleyball courts and make additional improvements to open spaces. The latter, Garber admitted, has its limits.
“There is a ceiling to what we’re willing to spend,” he said, pointing to the $10 million the league will invest only on rejuvenating the soccer fields.
But not everyone is welcoming the plan with open arms.
An amalgam of local groups, called the Fairness Coalition of Queens, has held a series of town hall meetings to garner community support against the project.
“Bringing a stadium to Queens has its merits, but its location is problematic,” said Anna Dioguardi, Director of Community Organizing and Development at the Queens Community House, which is a member of the coalition.
Aside from the loss of open space, the influx of pedestrian and car traffic would have a negative impact on the surrounding parkland, she added.
The league estimates over 50 percent of visitors will use mass transit, and the stadium will not host one of its up to 20 MLS games during the U.S. Open or a Mets home game. Also, “not one blade of grass will be used for parking,” Garber said and only one acre of what is currently green space will be lost.
Some Queens natives are an admittedly sentimental bunch, with many against the stadium proposing the park be rejuvenated instead.
Garber said he cannot account for why some of the World’s Fair’s structures have fallen into disrepair.
“The question is what’s that Fountain of Planets like now?” he said.