USTA pledges $10M to park for expansion

USTA pledges $10M to park for expansion
Rendering courtesy USTA
By Joe Anuta

The City Council voted Wednesday to allow the United States Tennis Association to expand in Flushing Meadows Corona Park following an 11th-hour agreement that will pump about $10 million into the shabby greenspace.

The vote now clears the way for the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to grow by 0.68 acres in Flushing Meadows, which will accommodate the construction of a new stadium, the reconstruction of an existing facility and increased office and retail space. The league has long contended these additions were essential for it to retain its worldwide appeal.

“This deal was a long time coming. I can say with confidence we will all benefit from this expansion,” said City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), who eventually wrangled the money for the greenspace out of the USTA and was praised for her negotiating skills by several members of the Council.

The cash will be kept as a lump sum and beginning in 2014, $5 million will be used for capital improvements over six years. For the first three years, $350,000 will be allotted for an annual maintenance fund and then for the next 20 years that number will drop to $200,000.

Ferreras delayed a vote on the permit for weeks to give a reluctant USTA, which currently pays about $2.5 million to the city’s general fund annually, more time to consider a deal, according to Council insiders, who said the lawmaker, tennis brass and city stakeholders were still hammering out the details well after the vote was supposed to take place Wednesday morning.

The approval of the expansion was seen by some as a foregone conclusion, but Ferreras had one major bargaining chip to play: Wednesday was the last day the Council could consider the measure. If lawmakers voted against the plan, the USTA would have had to start the months-long application process over again.

The tennis giant ran into vehement opposition from park advocacy groups opposed to simply giving away more parkland.

Some of those groups lauded Wednesday’s deal, which they said will pump sorely needed money into the highly used greenspace.

“For too long Flushing Meadows Corona Park has been ignored and underfunded,” The Fairness Coalition, an advocacy group, said in a statement. “Today, that legacy begins to change. This is the first major investment from a tenant of the park in decades.”

The nonprofit New Yorkers for Parks also praised the outcome of a long and sometimes acrimonious journey.

“From the start of the public approval process, local residents and park users voiced concerns about the park’s poor condition and their strained relationship with the USTA,” the nonprofit said, pointing out that the agreement heralds a new era for the park.

The $10.5 million fund, projected to last 23 years, is less than the $11.6 million the city Parks Department recently said it spends on Flushing Meadows annually.

But Holly Leicht, executive director of the nonprofit, said Wednesday’s deal is just the start.

“Hopefully, this is just the beginning of private funds that will help augment the public dollars,” she said, speaking of a new alliance that is set to raise money for the park and oversee how the new private money is spent.

Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) was the lone nay vote.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.