By Bob Harris
Decades ago, when I became involved with civic work, there seemed to be the philosophy that parkland was a sacred trust held for the use of the people of a community. Now it seems the city is willing to give away parkland to private developers in the name of economic development.
It started with Mayor David Dinkins giving the United States Tennis Association acres of land to build a complex in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The talk then was of the prestige of having the famed USTA in Queens. Some of us talked about the loss of parkland and the fact that the USTA had its offices in Westchester County.
A recent campaign pushed for the USTA to get a small amount of parkland so it could rebuild its stadiums. The fact that two groups also wanted parkland did not stop the process. Even statements by state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) that the USTA could have reconfigured the development so as not to take land and move or cut down 400 trees did not deter the giveaway.
The only good thing which came out of the votes by the City Planning Commission and the City Council was the fact that the USTA agreed to give $10 million to maintain the park and be in contact with the surrounding community. The city gives little money for park maintenance in Queens. Any money paid to the city by vendors who use our parks goes into the general city coffers but not necessarily for park maintenance.
The Council is holding hearings on the proposed Willets Point West Mall, which would use the parking lot adjacent to Citi Field. This land was originally parkland, but was leased to the New York Mets’ owners to be used as a parking lot for baseball fans. Now the Mets owners want to build this large mall for private economic development. If this parkland was not needed by the baseball team, then it should have been repurposed and used by the community people who come here to play and relax.
Fighting this “giveaway” was the Queens Civic Congress, the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Conservancy, the Fairness Coalition of Queens, Save Flushing Meadows Corona Park, New York City Parks Advocates and other groups. As in the case of the land given to the USTA, the Council also voted to give this land away.
The Queens Civic Council, an umbrella organization of about 100 civic associations in Queens, testified that if this mall is built, it will harm many small mom-and-pop stores in surrounding communities as well as struggling malls in other parts of Queens.
Another land giveaway proposal for the park is to build a soccer stadium. This idea may or may not have been shelved. There has been opposition to this proposal. One will have to watch carefully to see if it resurfaces.
Willets Point, also called the Iron Triangle, is a desolate area is just north of the park and was neglected by the city for decades. The city is pressuring the auto junk dealers there to sell and move away so private developers can build here using the threat of eminent domain.
Ironically, I saw the repeat of a TV show which tells how concerned people had to fight to prevent developers from destroying the natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park and other western natural areas. In those days, Congress had been like the Council in being willing to give away the people’s parks to developers.