I went to the theater last night…for a soccer rally. Major League Soccer (MLS) presented an overview of its plan for building a 25,000-seat soccer specific stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, located near Citi Field in the New York City Borough of Queens. The event was held at the Queens Theatre, which is in the very same park, a mere Baggio penalty kick from the proposed stadium site.
Host of Univision’s Republica Deportiva and author of The World Cup: The Ultimate Guide to the Greatest Sports Spectacle in the World Fernando Fiore was the emcee for the event, which dragged on for two hours as no fewer than 16 speakers voiced their support for the stadium – all of which was then translated, either English to Spanish or vice versa. The speakers ranged from local politicians and other civic leaders to heads of unions and local business associations. And, ultimately, that’s what this rally was about, fueling support in the local community.
MLS commissioner Don Garber was the first to speak, calling himself a “Queens guy” as he recounted his childhood there. He quickly dove into a dual-screen presentation, with one side in English and the other in Spanish. But it offered very little beyond what we’ve already reported in considerable detail.
In a nutshell, the league wants to build a 25,000-seat soccer-specific stadium that can be expanded to 35,000 seats without increasing its footprint. And that footprint will take up 10-13 acres centered on the Fountain of Planets, which sounds like a lovely spot but it’s actually a 6.5-acre cement pond that seems to have no other current use to park visitors than as a giant trash receptacle. The stadium will consume only two acres of grass land, and every square inch of park land it consumes will be replaced with park land elsewhere in the borough.
Again, the league refused to specify where that replacement park land might be found. And from the remarks of the local politicians, this is one of the biggest sticking points. They said that they would hold the league to their commitment, which will be guaranteed contractually at the federal, state, and local levels, to provide replacement park land that is “accessible and usable.”
The importance of this issue cannot be understated, because it’s the focal point for much of the opposition, many of whom seem to struggle with the concept of “every square inch of park land consumed by the stadium will be replaced with accessible and usable park land elsewhere in the borough.” If the league can identify suitable replacement park land that is both accessible and usable to the residents who currently use Flushing Meadows Corona Park, that should alleviate the concerns of most, especially the politicians.
The other sticky issue is parking. The league is counting on the majority of stadium visitors to take public transportation, as the New York City Subway and Long Island Railroad both have stations nearby – and both are already structured to accommodate large crowds. But in the event that visitors do drive, the league is looking to add to the parking currently available under the Van Wyck Expressway. They are also in negotiations with the Wilpons, who own nearby Citi Field, with the hope of using some of the baseball stadium’s existing lots as well.
The Sales Pitch
Though largely lacking in new information, Garber’s sales pitch did have a few new angles. Clearly, from the format of the meeting and its collateral to everything done by its MLStoQueens advocacy group, the league is counting on the support of the Hispanic community as well as the other ethnic groups in Queens, the most diverse borough in the city – and perhaps in the country. He said that we are living in a new America – one that looks, feels, and speaks differently – and that soccer is something that connects us all. He want on to say that, for MLS to achieve its goal of becoming one of the top leagues in the world by 2022, it would need a team in the largest and most important city in the world: New York City (and those still questioning the wisdom of putting the 20th franchise in New York should read our earlier story).
In his presentation, Garber also talked about improvements the league would make to the park. MLS plans to invest “tens of millions of dollars” to improve Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This will include improvements to beautify the landscape, increase park access, repair the fountains (which haven’t worked since 1964), and ensure flood prevention. The mantra is to preserve the park experience and sacrifice absolutely no grass land. No new roads will be built. In fact, with the MLS plan, the park would actually end up with more grass land available to the public than currently exists in the park.
MLS would also completely renovate the existing soccer fields in the park, which are in desperate need of repair. This will be done before the stadium construction even begins, and in stages so that the local youth and adult leagues can do their best to schedule around the closures to minimize any interruption in play.
We reported earlier about the stadium’s positive impact on the job front. Construction would create 2,100 union jobs. Once operational, the facility will have more than 150 full-time and more than 700 part-time employees, most of which will likely be drawn from neighboring communities.
But the only real news was regarding the long-term impact of the stadium on the local economy. The 25 soccer games along with approximately 15 other events held annually at the stadium (which are expected to include high school sports games) will generate an estimated $60 million in economic activity each year. And the operation should produce more than $50 million in tax revenue over the next 30 years.
The audience was overwhelmingly friendly, filled with youth soccer teams, supporters clubs, and unionized labor – all of whom stand to gain something from the deal. Two New York Cosmos supporters groups – the Borough Boys, whose president, Nick Laveglia, was one of the guest speakers, and La Banda del Cosmos – had the most vocal presence. And that could be troubling news for the New York Cosmos, who announced on Saturday that they may not have aspirations to join MLS. The Borough Boys were founded with the mission of bringing an MLS franchise to New York City and had thrown their support behind the Cosmos after the team announced that it’s mission was to join MLS.
There were also a handful of dissenters who showed up, but this was not really a forum for open debate as much as a pep rally for the cause. The questions were screened and rather soft, though a few with meat – namely who would own the stadium and where would the replacement park land be located – were met with well-rehearsed talking points that did everything but answer the question.
It was interesting to hear a handful of local politicians provide what amounted to conditional support, saying they liked the plan but still had questions – the kind of questions that weren’t being answered, at least not at this time. Assuming the league can satisfactorily address their concerns, namely replacement park land and parking, then MLS will likely proceed to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).
ULURP is a series of hearings, most involving public input, with Community Boards, the Borough President, the Planning Commission, and finally the City Council. Typically it’s an eight-month process (but that can vary greatly) and the project can get terminated at any point along the way.
After this comes the environmental review, including the Environmental Assessment Statement, which also involves a public hearing. Only after successfully negotiating that can the project proceed to the finish line, which is construction followed by a projected opening in time for the 2016 MLS season (assuming the league isn’t on the international calendar by then).
The Big Mystery
The plan sounds good, but the questions of who will ultimately pay for the privately financed stadium and who will buy that 20th franchise to play there remain a mystery. The league has long said that they are paying for it. But the question remains, will they continue to own it or would they add the expected price tag of $300 million to the expected $100 million cost of the 20th franchise? And exactly who is going to pay $400 million to play in a stadium in which they had no input in designing (for example, most stadiums feature seats in the team colors)? Unless, of course, the league already has an ownership group lined up, providing input on the design and location – and possibly even paying the cost of construction with the league acting as the middle man?
These questions were not answered at the rally, and probably won’t be anytime soon. But three things were made clear: 1) MLS is very serious about making this happen; 2) the league has the backing of many local political, community, business, and labor leaders; and 3) when saying that the project was near the “finish line” during his annual State of the League conference call two weeks ago, Don Garber was likely speaking in the Churchillian sense – as in “the end of the of the beginning.” However you spin it, this is good news for New York City soccer fans.