Major League Soccer on Tuesday evening held a town hall discussion in Queens Theatre in the Park aimed at reaching out to the community and airing thoughts surrounding its proposed 25,000-seat stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
A town hall meeting that featured Argentinian soccer broadcaster Fernando Fiore riling up the crowd and leading chants of “Futbol en Queens.”
A town hall that included a sweeping promotional video, intermixing impressive MLS plays with members of the community welcoming the stadium proposal.
A town hall in which an overwhelming majority of the 472 seats were reserved and occupied by supporters of the proposal, who were directly contacted by Major League Soccer and encouraged to show up early.
A town hall in which the league’s commissioner pledged all members of the community will be involved in the plan’s process.
A town hall in which the microphone was not given over to any member of a leading opposition group.
The whole experience left members of stadium opposition group the Fairness Coalition of Queens crying foul — from the basement.
The meeting was part of a push by MLS to inform and accumulate feedback on its proposed 25,000-seat stadium, constituting up to 13 acres of parkland at the current site of the Pool of Industry. It is slated to be completed and operating by 2016.
The league denied it orchestrated the town hall to resemble something closer to a pep rally, as members of the Fairness Coalition alleged after the event.
“Any suggestion that our town hall wasn’t open to the public is sour grapes,” said league spokeswoman Risa Heller. “This was a come one, come all event.”
The Fairness Coalition, a collective of community groups opposing the plan, has called upon MLS to seek another site for the stadium. Members say they don’t want to chase soccer out of Queens, just keep it out of the park.
“I’m for soccer, but when we give up parkland, we will never get it back,” said Steven Moyano, a protester.
Opposition members found themselves in the theater’s 99-seat, below-ground studio stage, where the event was projected onto a screen in a completely dark room. They claim MLS deployed a subtle system geared at drowning out dissent, making the theater audience awash in pro-stadium sentiment.
To enter the event, guests had to fill out a sign-in sheet. Aside from the rote fields that included a name, address, email and phone number was a small checkbox asking if the guest supports the stadium. It only offered one option: “YES.”
Members of the coalition claim MLS’s volunteer staff directed them to the studio stage in the basement after they used the space to write in “No.”
“They said the upstairs was full,” said Leandra Requena, holding a bilingual oak tag board that read “No Land Grab for Corporate Profit” in English and Spanish. “Everyone who signed ‘no’ was sent downstairs.”
MLS said the folks downstairs were simply late and relegated to the overflow area as a result. Included in the overflow audience were a number of supporters of the plan, as well as virtually all opposing it.
Being early might not have helped anyway. As audience members shuffled about and left, they revealed reservation signs on the theater seats, which limited the number of seats open to the general public.
“They have town people in the basement and supporters upstairs,” said a visibly irate Maria Alvarez, a member of Make the Road New York, one of several groups that make up the Fairness Coalition.
The resulting theater audience was awash in MLS scarves and T-shirts, which were handed out gratis at the door, holding up signs in favor of the stadium. A visual survey of the audience did not reveal a single opposition sign.
A member of Archbishop Molloy’s varsity soccer team sat front row, stage left, holding a poster board with “MLS Stadium = Jobs” scrawled in marker ink. The sign was handed to him at the door by someone in an MLS T-shirt with a name tag reading “Staff,” without questions or instructions, he said.
Heller said the signs were made up by MLS volunteers and handed to folks who wanted to carry them.
The town hall’s announcement arrived at different times for different groups as well, with Fairness Coalition members claiming they only heard of the meeting 48 hours before it was set to take place. The short warning left them scrambling to organize and show up on time.
MLS said its Twitter and Facebook pages were filled with announcements and reminders of the town hall, and pointed to fliers handed out in the park in the weekends leading up to the event. It announced the town hall to local media, including the Chronicle, on Friday.
Members of area high school soccer teams, as well as soccer clubs supporting the proposal, said the league informed them of the gathering directly and well ahead of time — up to two weeks in some instances. Some were also encouraged to arrive early.
The event included MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who enjoyed a fanatical welcome as Fiore deployed the trademark exuberance that makes him a household name to Univision’s soccer viewers.
Bayside native Garber touted a host of economic benefits for the community. The $350 million proposal comes laced with the promise of 150 full-time jobs and $60 million in annual economic activity, according to MLS.
“We will be a good partner in helping to drive the economy of Queens,” he said.
The borough, with its diverse community filled with soccer-loving nationalities, is a natural fit, he said.
“You can’t be a dominant league without a dominant soccer team in the largest and greatest city in the world,” he said.
Garber walked back previous comments he made during an interview with the Associated Press that claimed MLS and the city were “at the finish line.”
“We have a lot of work to do to finalize the plan,” he said Monday night.
Garber welcomed elected officials he said support the stadium, including Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Corona), state Sens. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) and Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst).
He also pointed to the planned rejuvenation of the park’s soccer fields, fountains, and water management infrastructure as tens of millions of dollars in added community benefits due to MLS’s presence.
The league is required to find up to 13 acres of replacement land as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure the plan must navigate in order to come to fruition.
That replacement parkland was at the heart of a contentious borough board meeting held Monday night at Borough Hall, in which the chairpersons of Queens’ community boards and elected officials expressed some skepticism about the plan in general, and often returned to the 13 replacement acres as a sticking point that must be ironed out first.
“I don’t think we can make a responsible decision on this until we know where the parkland will come from,” said Councilman Peter Vallone Jr (D-Astoria).
The league is seeking input and considering several sites for the replacement parkland, which can be created anywhere in the city.
Other community board leaders opposed the plan outright, and sternly.
“One thing I want to hear for this park is ‘Not for sale,’” said Community Board 2 Chairman Joe Conley.