Amid a groundswell of opposition, Major League Soccer (MLS) finally unveiled it long-rumored plans last week to build a soccer-specific stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, located in the New York City borough of Queens. The stadium will take up 13 acres and have a seating capacity of 25,000, comparable to Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. And, if the league gains approval, the stadium could be expanded to 35,000 seats in the future without requiring any additional land.
The proposed stadium will be designed by SHoP, architects of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. With projects around the world, the New York firm is also working to redesign Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport and redeveloping the dilapidated East River waterfront in Lower Manhattan, helping make the most of the city’s under-utilized public space.
MLS is currently working with the City to develop a memorandum of understanding and hopes to have a deal secured by early November. It is also meeting with local residents to get their feedback. That will be followed by a mandatory series of hearings with City planners, community boards, and elected officials. If all goes well, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, a Queens native, hopes to break ground in 2014 – ahead of other construction projects being proposed for the area – and have the stadium ready for the 2016 or 2017 season.
The stadium is projected to cost $300-350 million and will be privately financed. No tax dollars will be used to fund the project. And construction will bring an estimated 2,300 jobs to Queens, while the ongoing operation of the stadium will generate 160 full-time and 750 part-time jobs.
The new stadium is expected to host at least 20 MLS matches per season, along with a comparable number of concerts and other events. The league is working with the Mets to negotiate use of existing parking spaces at nearby Citi Field, since the plan is to not schedule any events while the other sports facilities in the park – Citi Field and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center – are hosting events, thereby minimizing the impact on the park and surrounding community. As part of the plan, additional parking will be added to the parking spaces currently located under the Van Wyck Expressway, which bisects the park.
The Unfair Coalition
In the weeks leading up to the announcement, a coalition of local community groups expressed a number of concerns about the proposed new stadium. Some of these concerns are genuine while others are, at best, ill-informed, and at worst, downright fraudulent.
On top of that, there has been a string of misinformation resulting from several articles in the local news media that have also omitted or misrepresented key facts about the proposed plan, providing a distinctly anti-stadium spin. Whether or not these omissions were a deliberate attempt to manipulate public opinion or simply sloppy journalism remains to be seen.
And it has all been complicated by the fact that the US Tennis Association is proposing to expand its footprint in the park and the Mets have proposed building a shopping mall in one of the Citi Field parking lots, which is also located within the park. As a result, I thought it was worth addressing these omissions and some of the misinformation being put out there, so that the residents of Queens, and all of New York City, can have the facts they need to make up their own minds about the proposed soccer stadium.
Why Build A Soccer Stadium?
MLS wants to build a stadium in one of the five boroughs of New York City in hopes of attracting a 20th franchise, based right here in the media capital of the world. The league does have a team – the New York Red Bulls – in Harrison, New Jersey, right across the river from Newark, but they do not draw that many New Yorkers and have historically done little to market themselves in the city. MLS understands that a team located within the five boroughs will better serve New York’s 8.2 million residents, who are among the most diverse and soccer-loving as you’ll find anywhere on the planet. And for those who still question the league’s wisdom in pursuing a stadium and franchise in New York City, I suggest you read our earlier article: Why MLS Should Build A Stadium In New York City.
Currently there is no tenant for the proposed stadium. The league plans to either sell (or possibly lease) it to whomever it sells its 20th franchise (the latest figure cited for the sale of that franchise is $100 million). The most likely candidate is the current owners of the New York Cosmos, who will be fielding a team out at Hofstra University in the North American Soccer League (NASL) next season. The NASL is the second tier of American soccer, just below MLS, and often functions as a stepping stone for teams that want to join the top league – which seems to be the Cosmos’ plan.
However, despite the popularity of the Cosmos brand locally, nationally, and internationally, MLS has repeatedly claimed that there are other potential bidders. So it is possible - given the estimated cost of acquiring both the stadium and the franchise – that the Cosmos could join forces with another interested party. Either way, the league said that it could announce a tenant for the stadium – and the 20th MLS franchise – as early as March 2013.
Why Build It In Flushing Meadows?
After exploring a number of different potential sites around the city for a soccer-specific stadium, including Pier 40 in Manhattan (until politicians made it clear that such a venture at that location would prove exceedingly difficult to pursue), MLS has set its sights on a 13-acre plot in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the second largest public park in New York City.
For those unfamiliar with Flushing Meadows Corona Park, it’s a 54,667,000 square-foot mixed-use area located in the northeastern corner of Queens. The park has been transformed over the years to host two World’s Fairs. It is accessible by several major highways as well as the Long Island Rail Road and the 7 subway train, at the same crowd-friendly stop used by both Citi Field and the National Tennis Center.
One of the benefits of building a professional soccer stadium in Queens is that, if it were a standalone city, it would be the fourth largest – and the most ethnically diverse – in the nation. So, at least from a business perspective, it’s hard to argue that the most ethnically diverse city in America, with a population greater than the host cities of all but three (Los Angeles, Chicago, and Toronto) of the current 19 MLS teams, is not an ideal place to establish professional soccer team. It is ideal.
What Are They Not Telling Us?
As mentioned, there have been a number of facts either misrepresented or outright omitted by those opposing the proposed soccer stadium. The real debate, as one-sided as it has been, is about whether such a stadium should be built in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. And what it comes down to is whether public park land should be used for private enterprise.
Interestingly, in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a precedent has already been set in favor of judiciously using public park land for private enterprises that benefit the community. More than 10 percent of the park is currently dedicated to such use (see sidebar), significantly enriching the local community and the city as a whole.
No Park Land Lost
It should also be noted that, despite the false yet repeated claims by both the opposition and many local journalists, not one single inch of park land will be lost to the MLS stadium. Let me repeat that: Queens residents will not lose one inch of park land to build a soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
As part of the proposed deal, MLS has agreed to purchase and provide an equal amount of public park land (the stadium’s footprint is estimated to be 566,280 square feet) elsewhere in Queens, preferably as close to Flushing Meadows Corona Park as possible. So, yes, the 54,667,000 square-foot Flushing Meadows Corona Park will shrink by a fraction, becoming a 54,100,720 square-foot park, but Queens residents will gain a new 566,280 square-foot park nearby.
So, folks who live near the current park will have to make do with one percent less park, but other Queens residents will now have a new 566,280 square-foot park where they likely had no immediate access to public park land. In other words, the amount of park land in Queens will not change, but more residents of Queens will have access to public park land as a result of the deal.
The challenge for MLS is finding space for that new park, and making sure that the land is meaningful to the residents of Queens. Two locations have been suggested, including a space along Flushing Creek to the north of the park and another in Rego Park, to the southwest. And part of the Flushing Creek plot is wetlands, which – as useful as that may be – is likely not what residents have in mind as a replacement.
The Noisy Neighbors
As mentioned earlier, the proposed plan for the soccer stadium is complicated because two other private enterprises are also looking to expand and repurpose their current use of land in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The US Tennis Association, which currently operates the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center within the park, has proposed a small expansion of its facilities. It claims that the expansion will consume an area that is currently paved as an access road, protecting the park’s green spaces. The Mets, whose Citi Field is also located within the park, have proposed building a mall in one of their parking lots. Again, repurposing land that is already paved, so no green space will be lost.
Residents are alarmed at the idea of having three construction projects disrupting their park. However, with groundbreaking targeted for 2014, the soccer stadium construction should begin and finish before the other projects, alleviating some of those concerns. Of course it doesn’t help that the US Tennis Association, who originally promised not to expand its footprint in the park, now appears to be breaking that promise. Or the fact that the Mets, who used public tax dollars to help fund the construction of Citi Field, are now using some of that repurposed park land to construct a shamelessly commercial shopping mall.
This brings us to another point that’s often been conveniently omitted by those seeking to undermine the stadium proposal. The soccer stadium will be privately financed. Not a penny of taxpayer money will be used to build it. In contrast, to build the new Citi Field in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, city and state taxpayers had to pick up much of the $900 million construction tab. Of course, the exact amount paid for by the public, and even the actual final cost of construction, remains a matter of debate. So, naturally, those who oppose the plan for a soccer stadium want you to assume that, like Citi Field, it will cost you, the taxpayer. That is false. It will not.
Repurposing Under-Utilized Land
Another point worth mentioning is that the proposed site for the stadium within the park centers around the prophetically named the Industry Pond. Once a picturesque showpiece at the World’s Fair, known as the Fountain of Planets, it is now a giant circular cement tub of water in which you can often find garbage and other floating debris, including the occasional soccer ball that has bounced in from the surrounding soccer fields. True, geese and seagulls occasionally visit the pond, but they are more likely to spend time in one of the park’s three lakes, or a nearby natural pond within the park.
Speaking of the surrounding soccer fields, there are nine “official” fields in the park (pick-up games crop up all over, wherever residents find an open space). Two of these fields, located east of the Van Wyck Expressway, have been renovated recently, but the other seven are in desperate need of repair. As part of the stadium plan, these fields will be refurbished, with the four immediately surround Industry Pond being relocated as well. This will all be done prior to construction to ensure continuity for the 14-plus soccer leagues that play there.
These improvements to the existing facilities, combined with the opportunity to see professional soccer being played in their own backyard, has won over the large, local soccer community. And that community is the principal user of this particular section of the park.
Of the 13 acres being repurposed for the stadium, only one of them is currently green space. The rest is concrete, mostly the Industry Pond and other under-utilized space. Beyond the soccer fields that are in a terrible state of disrepair, the area in question is primarily used by strollers, bikers, and joggers – all of whom will still be able to walk, ride, or run around the stadium, which will give them a slightly larger circle than the Industry Pond does.
As you can see, opponents of the proposed soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park haven’t been entirely honest. And many of the local media who have reported on the debate haven’t provided all the facts either.
I cannot – and will not – defend the proposals from the Mets and US Tennis Association. While all of these plans are designed to minimize impact on the park’s green space, and space that is currently being utilized by the public, the new soccer stadium is unique in that it will replace every inch of land that it uses with additional park land. And the league will improve the surrounding facilities in the park as part of its plan.
Clearly, as residents of an urban environment, we need to judiciously consider converting public park land to private use. But in the case of the proposed soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, I think it makes good sense for everyone involved.
The combination of new jobs, the creation of a new park along with improvements to the existing one, and the opportunity to see top-level soccer right here in New York City benefits everyone. Queens will continue to blossom as a sports destination, and the world’s city will finally have a dedicated venue for the world’s game.
This video of the proposed stadium site was shot on a recent Saturday afternoon, showing how under-utilized the area is outside of the dilapidated soccer fields surrounding it.