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Queens Chronicle

USTA Flushing Meadows plan puts park’s treatment in spotlight

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Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 10:46 am, Thu Mar 7, 2013.

Community Board 8’s Zoning Committee navigated what has become a rote set of machinations during a hearing about the United States Tennis Association’s planned expansion.

It involved an extensive joint presentation by the USTA and city Parks Department; jawing over some of Flushing Meadows’ still-undefined benefits; speaking slots larded up by proponents and opponents of the project with accusations flying in all directions.

Unlike previous gatherings, the meeting led to a vote on a motion to approve the USTA’s expansion. It included the stipulation that the nonprofit increase its outreach efforts into the CB 8 community and offer more free programs to neighborhoods that encompass the park. It ended in a 4-4 tie.

A similar hearing before Community Board 9’s Parks Committee resulted in the outlining of a resolution that has yet to be drafted, but will be presented to the full board for a vote at its next meeting on March 12. (Boards 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 9 all must vote on the project as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.)

“I firmly believe this will happen,” said CB 8 zoning committee member Mark Haken after initiating the motion to approve. “What can I get out of the USTA for the youths of CB 8 in exchange?”

This “in exchange” mentality, guided by a sense of inevitability, has repeatedly become the fulcrum of community boards’ discussions of the the USTA’s proposal.

The nonprofit has been a tenant in Flushing Meadows for 35 years; the park hasn’t burned to cinders. Many of the organization’s tennis-oriented works are gratis. And the USTA touts $750 million in economic activity generated by its self-described “bake sale,” the US Open.

But nearly all of the USTA’s benefits are aimed at the macro-economic scope of citywide lucre. Its $2.5 million in rent, community board members often note, go into the city’s general fund, which is dispersed across all five boroughs.

“We’ve been a good neighbor,” USTA President Daniel Zausner often says during his presentation before boards.

Now, community boards are beginning to ask the USTA to be a good neighbor to the park exclusively. But was it ever?

Arne Abramowitz remembers his first reaction to the USTA’s proposed expansion, during his days as the Flushing Meadows Corona Park administrator from 1985 to 1993 when the tennis organization first expanded its presence footprint by over 20 acres.

“They had the stadium in the completely wrong place!” he said, pointing at some wayward end of the USTA’s grounds during a walk in the park.

Arthur Ashe Stadium was set to be completely misaligned with the park’s Beaux-Arts design. Fortunately, reason prevailed. At least the new tennis stadium was in line with the park’s signature structure, the Unisphere, Abramowitz said.

The USTA didn’t care, he said. “This was free real estate to them.” This new expansion is no different in his mind.

The National Tennis Center’s upgrade, nominally dubbed a “Strategic Vision,” calls for a relocation of the current Grandstand Stadium, a renovation of Louis Armstrong Stadium, as well as additional courts and parking facilities. The plan would alienate a total of .68 acre of what is currently parkland along its facility’s eastern edge.

The plan comes at a time when some feel the park is being chopped into segments and handed over to private interests. An alphabet soup of grassroots organizations, including the Fairness Coalition of Queens, Save Flushing Meadows Corona Park and Friends of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, have joined the usual cadre of park advocates in opposing the USTA’s plans, as well as a proposed Major League Soccer stadium and 1.4-million square-foot mall next to Citi Field.

The groups decry various aspects of the proposal: increased traffic; hundreds of trees chopped down; cars parked on the grass during the US Open and a proposed on-site 8 mega-watt diesel generator.

The USTA rebuffs the claims in a “Fact vs. Fiction” flyer it distributes at meetings, as well as during its presentation. All lost trees will be replaced, it asserts. The Department of Transportation approved the USTA’s traffic figures, during peak congestion hours. The cars parked on the grass are the fault of the NYPD, not the USTA, and only occur on days when the US Open overlaps with a Mets home game. It does use an allotted grass field for parking, which it resods immediately after the Open.

And the generator, which is listed as part of the plan in the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, has been blown out of proportion.

A more recent line of attack points to the USTA’s offices in Westchester, with opponents accusing the organization’s executives of ducking New York City income taxes.

“That decision was made 20 to 25 years ago by the director at the time who wanted to work close to home,” Zausner said in response. “I don’t think he spent much time thinking about corporate taxes.”

But all opponents contend such plans would never be proposed for Central or Prospect Parks.

Which leads back Abramowitz’s tenure.

To put it bluntly, the guy was lucky. Armed with $200 million in capital funding, he was able to replace tiling around Flushing Meadows, clean its various iconic structures and add new plantings.

Even the USTA expansion in 1993 provided the funding that would ultimately create the park’s ice skating rink and swimming pool.

But the largesse wasn’t completely free: the city installed a 40-million-gallon sewage overflow tank at the park's east end, according to Abramowitz.

“This park has sacrificed enough for the city,” he often says.

Agency employees were sizable during Abramowitz’s tenure, totaling 45 full-timers.

Today, that number stands at 14 (it jumps to 18 if you include administrative staff dedicated to FMCP), with 32 seasonal employees lending a hand during the busier months. (Compare that with the 274 employees Central Park Conservancy employees in Manhattan, or 92 Prospect Park Alliance employees in Brooklyn).

Even the park’s acreage experiences bizarre fluctuations. According to the Parks Department website, it’s either 897 acres, or 1,255 acres. Depends on where you click.

The agency has yet to explain the discrepancy after repeated requests.

It begs the question: Is anyone a good neighbor to the park?

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has a special designation it affords to parks: a scenic landmark. Prospect Park was designated in 1973; Central Park in 1974.

The LPC has a relatively low hurdle to cross in order to initiate the process that may lead to the protective designation: ask.

After decades, someone finally asked LPC to review Flushing Meadows Park for possible designation. It came last week, in the form of a letter by state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside).

And so as community boards invariably echo Haken, asking what they can “get out of” the USTA, Abramowitz suggests you ask what more can the park give?

In a walk around the National Tennis Center, the former parks administrator noted the USTA’s entire layout faces inward and ignores the park that is its home. Its offices gander upon adjacent facilities; it’s their garbage Dumpsters that face out.

While leaving the USTA’s grounds, it’s hard to ignore the statue of Arthur Ashe facing the stadium that bears the tennis legend’s name. His derriere, it should be noted, protrudes out toward the Unisphere.

CLARIFICATION: The story was updated to reflect the four administrative staff members focusing on the park exclusively. The number of full-time employees for the Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance were changed to reflect current numbers, replacing the original figures obtained from the nonprofits' 2010 Form 990 filings.

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