Councilman blasts Mayor for playing politics with new park alliance

By Bill Parry

A turf battle erupted Monday at Flushing Meadows Corona Park as Mayor Bill de Blasio joined Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (D-East Elmhurst) to announce the official launch of a long delayed park conservancy.

The new independent non-profit organization will support and promote upkeep and enhancement of the 900-acre park and decide how to spend more than $10 million that will be contributed by the United States Tennis Association in a deal brokered with Ferreras-Copeland in 2013.

City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) cried foul accusing the mayor of playing politics by giving Ferreras-Copeland, who represents the north half of the park, an appointment to the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Alliance board of directors while freezing him out.

The alliance’s board of directors in comprised of eight government, community and business leaders including National Tennis Center COO Danny Zausner, Make the Road New York executive director Javier Valdes and Andrea Hirsh, the Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel of the USTA.

“I represent half of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, including the interests of tens of thousands of my direct constituents and of hundreds of thousands more who enjoy the Meadow and Willow Lakes area — we deserve representation, and a say in how resources are allocated in our park,” Lancman said. “Public appointments, public resources and public parks aren’t plums to be awarded to political allies.”

The mayor was dismissive of Lancman’s claim saying, “Ferreras-Copeland covers the majority of this park.”

On Tuesday, Lancman and several community leaders from neighborhoods that surround the southern part of the park, gathered to blast the mayor while standing next to a map of the park. It showed that 47 percent of the park is in Lancman’s district while 53 percent is in Ferrera-Copeland’s district.

“The mayor came into office with a vision to end the tale of two cities,” Lancman said. “What we have is a tale of two park systems. They get all the love and all the money while this one languishes. The northern end, with all its institutions like the World’s Fair, the Queens Museum and the New York Hall of Science, has always got the resources while the southern end always got the short end of the stick. Ninety-one percent of the funding goes to the northern end.”

Lancman said the board’s structure was negotiated in secret.

“The negotiations went on for a year and I wasn’t privy to it,” he said. “I got a call last Thursday night saying this is how it’s going to happen.”

Lancman and de Blasio have crossed swords before. Lancman once called for a hearing to look into the de Blasio administration’s snow-response efforts. He voted against the mayor’s pick to lead the Department of Investigation, and when Lancman backed Dan Garodnick (D-Manhattan) in the race for council speaker against de Blasio’s pick, Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan), observers say it may have cost him a committee chairmanship.

But Lancman did not think that had anything to do with the current situation.

“I’m an independent who speaks his mind and Julissa is a member of the Progressive Caucus, who are de Blasio’s allies in the City Council,” he said. “This was a political decision and it’s no secret that the mayor did not do well in these neighborhoods surrounding the southern end of the park.”

At Monday’s announcement, Ferreras-Copeland reflected on her tough negotiations with the USTA and her long fight to establish the conservancy to protect the park.

“As a young girl from Corona this was the lungs of my community,” she said. “This is the park where I learned to ride my bike, where I learned to ice skate, and even where I went on my first date with my husband.”

Lancman was not impressed.

“That’s beautiful,” he said dryly. “I grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. These are the parking lots where I learned to drive and I played touch football here when I went to PS 164 just five blocks away. Look, we all have emotional memories, intimate memories about this park, but this is about the present. No representation and no voice disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of park users and that is inappropriate.”

The mayor has said Ferreras-Copeland’s leadership was essential in creation of the alliance, according to a spokeswoman who added that the 21st council district includes 345 acres of useable parkland excluding lakes and inaccessible marshes. Lancman’s 24th council district includes 113 acres of useable parkland.

“I’m very excited that after years of our park being an afterthought, it is being recognized as something to invest time and money in,” Ferreras-Copeland said. “The Alliance is exactly what the park needs to be able to engage with the community and plan strategically, and it’s a mechanism to raise money and bring those ideas into fruition.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.