Council grills USTA before expansion vote 1

USTA Chief Operating Officer Gordon Smith at a Community Board 7 meeting in March.

“We’ll have to get back to you on that.”

During the entirety of the United States Tennis Association’s public testimony regarding its proposed expansion within Flushing Meadows Corona Park, “We’ll have to get back to you on that” has become a fall-back option for some of the more uncomfortable questions surrounding the project.

It was no different last Thursday, when the Parks Department and the USTA testified before the City Council regarding the project. Questions about traffic mitigation, parking on grass and funds generated by the organization’s marquee event, the US Open, were all either met with a verbal shrug or promises for further information down the line.

It all merged for what has become a confounding picture of the park’s future, should the USTA’s plans come through.

The National Tennis Center proposal calls for the upgrade of the Louis Armstrong Stadium, new retail facilities and expanded parking. The plan also includes the creation of a new Grandstand on land already leased to the tennis nonprofit during its first expansion. The USTA has argued it needs to expand pathways to allow for the smooth flow of pedestrian traffic within the NTC. As a result, the proposal includes 0.68 acre of what is currently mapped as parkland, which must be replaced.

The City Council will vote on the USTA’s plan next month, as it winds down through the final stages of the Uniform Land Use Review Project.

It has been over nine months since the USTA began churning its project through the public review process, which included hearings before six community boards, and the borough president’s office, among others.

During that process, questions of traffic mitigation and impact were brought up, and invariably anything that fell outside the bounds of the USTA’s Environmental Impact Statement were met with a “We’ll get back to you on that.”

“This is a long ULURP process and I would like us to get something more concrete because it has to be part of a traffic plan,” said a visibly exasperated Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), whose support of the plan is key, since the project occurs within her district. “I need to better understand where are your people parking. I think it’s been clear after six community boards that parking on the grass is a very big issue in our community and it’s just not something that we can take lightly.”

The nonprofit’s Chief Operating Officer and Executive Director Gordon Smith was flanked by Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski during the hearing, and grew visibly flummoxed as the discussion of traffic and parking on the grass fields stretched beyond the 10 minute barrier.

Ferreras pressed on, asking if the proposed Mets mall in the Citi Field parking lot would have an effect on parking patterns.

“There would be a sufficient and excess amount of parking than what we would need during the event,” Smith said. “We believe that the part of Citi Field parking that would not be impacted would be sufficient for the tournament.”

The USTA has, to its dismay, been the icebreaker in what appeared to be three major projects slated for Flushing Meadows Corona Park, along with a proposed Major League Soccer stadium and 1.4-million-square-foot mall in what is currently Citi Field’s parking lot. The critical mass of the projects arose during the hearing.

Parking on the grass, Smith said, was the result of peak hours and maximum attendance.

“As a last resort it shouldn’t be an option at all,” Ferreras said. “To not take into account the other huge projects around you at this point in this process concerns me.”

The USTA’s performance, ultimately, was a wash, according to parks groups critical of all the projects.

“The USTA benefits enormously by being inside FMCP. They will benefit even more if they expand. The community is already burdened by their presence,” said Will Sweeney of the Fairness Coalition of Queens, which has been advocating the creation of a new Flushing Meadows conservancy partially funded by the USTA. “What’s missing from the conversation is how the USTA benefits the park and the community. This is something that the USTA failed to communicate and demonstrate.

“We should have the benefit of the world’s best park if we’re going to have the world’s wealthiest people invading and negatively impacting it every summer,” he added. “The USTA must pay on an annual basis towards the maintenance of the park.”

Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates and Save FMCP, another group fighting the development within the park, expressed hesitation at crediting elected officials for their tough stance and indignation and is waiting to see how they will finally vote. As for the USTA?

“‘We’ll have to get back to you on that’ is not an answer,” he said.

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