Casino opponents rally in Flushing

Jean Silva, left, president of the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Conservancy was among the protesters on Friday morning who oppose construction of a casino on the west parking lot at Citi Field.

A coalition of environmental groups, park preservationists and leaders in Flushing’s Asian community gathered outside the Flushing Library Friday morning to protest the casino that has been proposed for the Citi Field parking lot by New York Mets owner Steve Cohen.

The rally came just over two weeks after Cohen, on Feb. 21, released the compiled results of six visioning sessions at which people commented on what they would like to see happen to the 50 acres that used to be covered in part by Shea Stadium.

While the protesters would like to see the land repurposed, as would 98 percent of the people who responded at Cohen’s sessions, none of them wants the casino that the Mets owner has been lobbying for at Willets Point.

Gov. Hochul and the state plan to award three full casino licenses in or near New York City.

John Choe, executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, sported a “Mets Fans Against the Casino” poster before and during the rally. He was among a handful of speakers from the Asian community who directly accused casino backers and supporters of targeting and stereotyping Asian residents as a demographic that enjoys gambling.

“Gov. Hochul wants to end the sale of menthol cigarettes because they target the African-American and Latin communities,” Choe told the Chronicle just prior to the protest. “But when another predatory industry — gambling — targets our community n Flushing, no one raises an eyebrow.”

During the interview and later in his speech he called the promise of jobs and economic benefits from a casino “an illusion,” citing the crime and decay of Atlantic City as an example.

Maggie Flanagan of Guardians of Flushing Bay was among many speakers who pointed out that the parking lot is on state parkland. Rebecca Pryor, the group’s executive director, pointed out that it sits in a wetland and flood plain area.

“If Steve Cohen doesn’t want it to be a parking lot, give it to the city and make it a real park,” she said before the rally. Flanagan said a casino would not likely help with measures that should be taken to address climate change and recent flooding problems that have struck the area in recent years.

And she said there is a difference between building a casino and having 50 acres of what now is largely impermeable asphalt.

“In a park, you expect to have some parking space,” Flanagan said. “But you can build rain gardens in a parking lot. You can plant trees and build bioswales. You can change to permeable pavement.”

During her talk, Flanagan said the site needs green infrastructure, “not the kind of green built on losing our hard-earned dollars to casino profits.”

Jean Silva, president of the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Conservancy, said this is the fifth time in the last 20 years she has seen plans for development in the park.

“And none of them put a cent back into the park,” she said.

John Park, a member of Community Board 7, told the Chronicle on Friday that  he supports developing the site. He is not pushing specifically for a casino. But he also is not opposed to one should Cohen secure the gaming license.

“I drive by every day for almost 40 years on the Grand Central Parkway or the subway or on Northern Boulevard,” Park said. He said a parking lot used primarily during home games for the Mets can generate jobs and city revenue if developed properly.

“You can’t stop development, but you need a balance,” he said.

Park also said gambling is not about ethnicity, but about gambling.

“We have the bus here that takes people to Atlantic City. Sometimes they go to Connecticut,” he said. “Friends go to Las Vegas every year. Gamblers are going to gamble.”

A spokesman for Cohen, in an email to the Chronicle on Friday, said community input is essential to the process.

“The community is our first and most important partner,” he said. “Over the past six months, we’ve been listening to the community and they’ve made it very clear that they want more from the 50 acres of asphalt around Citi Field. We’re encouraged by what we have been hearing and will continue to host community workshops over the coming weeks to further inform our ultimate vision for the area.”

Among the ideas submitted by residents during the sessions held by Cohen include public green space; athletic fields; improved connections to the Flushing Bay waterfront; a hotel with the ability to host live music and conferences; and improved mass transit infrastructure.

Cohen said in September that any project would need to have dedicated open space for the public and that park space is essential to the community, even around Citi Field.

While opponents have pointed to the property’s designation as parkland — which led the state Court of Appeals to reject a plan for a shopping mall on the site in 2017 — Albany could agree to alienate the property. Pryor said if that happened there is no guarantee that the 50 acres would have to be replaced elsewhere.

But proponents of the plan argue that the area has been underused, serving mostly as a parking lot for the 1939-40 World’s Fair.

They also have pointed out that the state Legislature authorized development om the land in 1961 to facilitate the construction of Shea Stadium.