By Joe Anuta
The odds that a soccer team funded by an Abu Dhabi sheik and the New York Yankees will scrap plans for a stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park are more likely than official announcements have indicated, TimesLedger Newspapers has learned.
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber announced Tuesday Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the owner of a British team called Manchester City Football Club, and the Bronx Bombers, which have signed on as minority partners, will head the league’s newest franchise.
The team, called New York City Football Club, plans to begin its first season in 2015 at a temporary venue the team said has not been decided, but which documents seen by TimesLedger identify as Yankee Stadium.
MLS has spent more than a year and nearly $2 million on lobbyists to lay the groundwork for a 13-acre stadium proposed on top of a non-working fountain in the park, which was touted by the Bloomberg administration but met with vehement opposition by Queens parks groups.
In order to fend off continuing criticism directed at the team’s majority owner from Abu Dhabi’s royal family, the New York City Football Club has already planned to abandon the idea, documents suggest.
A spokeswoman disputed that information and issued a statement in response.
“New York City Football Club is pursuing Flushing Meadows Corona Park as well as alternatives. We look forward to engaging the community,” she said. “We are looking for a home, not simply a place to play, and our mandate for now is to listen.”
The club plans to draw focus away from the turmoil in Queens by backing off the park complex and instead pushing news about players and highlighting the upcoming 2015 season, according to documents, which is a year earlier than MLS had originally anticipated play would begin.
The decision seems to have come as a surprise to both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and MLS.
As recently as May 13, Bloomberg defended the Flushing Meadows stadium plan, telling reporters at a news conference replacement parkland would be found for the proposed 25,000-seat stadium.
And in late April, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was still insisting the Queens stadium was the only option.
“If we get this done, it will be in Flushing Meadows Park,” Garber told the Associated Press at the time. “There is no Plan B.”
But the MLS commissioner was informed sometime after making the comment that the new team, which is now taking the lead on the stadium search, would consider other locations.
“MLS is no longer leading the effort with the stadium project,” Garber said this week, adding the league has also dropped its pursuit of a land-use application to site the stadium in the park, he said.
New York City Football Club knew its decision would anger the city administration, since the mayor and a team of high-ranking city officials poured significant resources into the park stadium plan, considered by many to be a Bloomberg legacy project, TimesLedger has learned.
But even if the team were to forge ahead with the Flushing Meadows site, it would face many obstacles.
In MLS’s original plan, parking would need to be provided at Citi Field through an agreement with the New York Mets.
The league was never able to come to an agreement with the Wilpons, Garber said Wednesday. And now MLS has handed the reins to a team that includes the Amazin’s crosstown rivals, the Yankees, making talks more complicated.
The team would also have to go through a complex permitting process, since the city, the state and the federal government would all have to sign off on construction and leasing of this particular piece of parkland.
But the commissioner was confident negotiations with communities in Queens and elsewhere will go much more smoothly now that a team has been announced.
According to the documents, the club plans to thank and reach out to community groups in Queens and may offer to refurbish soccer fields in Flushing Meadows near the proposed stadium site even though the stadium may never be built.
The documents seen by TimesLedger suggest the team is putting far more distance between itself and the stadium than Ferran Soriano, chief executive officer of Manchester City Football Club, and Randy Levine, president of the Yankees, have said at two news conferences.
“In considering any stadium site, we will listen first. This is what we have always done in Manchester and what we will do in New York. Only in this way, can the club truly represent the city whose name it will carry,” Soriano said in a statement released earlier this week.
In a separate document supplied to TimesLedger in February, the MLS said it had investigated 24 potential sites throughout the city for a stadium, long before announcing New York City Football Club.
The exact sites are not listed but a map indicates MLS eyed a site near the Aqueduct Racino in South Ozone Park, a spot near the Jamaica Long Island Rail Road station, a site in Hallets Cove in Astoria, and a location in the Forest Hills area, near a large swath of property owned by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.
The map also shows three locations in and around Flushing Meadows: one where the current footprint is proposed, another at Willets Point and a third near either the parking lot of the Mets’ Citi Field or a nearby rail yard operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Sites along the Brooklyn waterfront, in the Bronx and in western Manhattan were also examined.
The idea New York City Football Club may not want to build a stadium in Flushing Meadows was good news for advocacy groups.
“We are happy and relieved, but we have to make sure nothing comes in its place,” said Paul Graziano, of Save Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a group opposed to private development in the green space.
“This sheds light on the incredibly bad behavior by very powerful people, and hopefully will spark a change in the way things are being done to stop this travesty from occurring again.”
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4566.