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Lancman sues city over Flushing Meadows Park Alliance

Councilman Rory Lancman (l) with Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver in Flushing Meadow Corona Park last week before he filed a lawsuit against the city.
Photo by Bill Parry
By Bill Parry

A turf war over Flushing Meadows Corona Park escalated this week. City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court against the city and the Alliance for Flushing Meadows Corona Park, an entity he claims was formed to funnel money from developers and other for-profit entities in exchange for the use of park resources.

He contends that the alliance’s funding scheme and board composition violate both the City Charter and the Administrative Code.

The lawsuit raises fundamental questions about parks equity, including who gets to negotiate the commercialization of the city’s public parks and who gets to decide how those proceeds are used.

“Our parks aren’t for sale, yet the alliance’s funding and governance structure violate both the City Charter and the Administrative Code in ways that undermine the public’s control over Flushing Meadows Corona Park,” Lancman said. “Hatched during the waning days of a Bloomberg administration desperate to close deals on redeveloping Willets Point and the US Open Tennis Center expansion, and brought to full politicized fruition by the de Blasio administration eager to reward its allies, the alliance’s funding mechanism bypasses the Charter’s detailed and transparent budget process, and its governance ignores the Administrative Code’s carefully balanced representation requirements.

“What’s left is a rogue organization bargaining off access to Flushing Meadows and making important decisions about the park’s future without proper oversight or input from the public’s elected representatives. It’s unacceptable, it’s illegal, and it has to stop.”

Lancman said the problems originateg in the city’s eagerness in the fall of 2013 to obtain City Council approval for the massive redevelopment of Willets Point and the expansion of the USTA’s National Tennis Center, home of the US Open, which includes the use of separate pieces of parkland for development of a shopping mall at Citi Field and for the USTA. In exchange for approving the deals, the city’s Economic Development Corporation and City Councilwoman Julissa Fererras Copeland (D-East Elmhurst), who led the negotiations, insisted on funding for a to-be-created conservancy for the park.

The Willets Point project developers, The Related Companies and Sterling Equities, the owners of the New York Mets, agreed to pay nearly $15.5 million over 25 years and the USTA agreed to pay nearly $10 million over 23 years. Half of the money would go to the Flushing Meadows Corona Park capital improvements and half to the alliance directly.

When the alliance was finally formed in the fall of 2015, its bylaws provided for a board member to be appointed by Fererras-Copeland, but none by any of the other three City Council members whose districts overlap the park; Lancman, Peter Koo (Flushing) and Paul Vallone (Bayside). Lancman cried foul at the time saying the mayor was rewarding a political ally.

Fererras-Copland declined to comment. Mayor de Blasio has said her leadership was essential to the creation of the alliance.

“Council Member Lancman’s interpretation of the Administrative Code is incorrect,” De Blasio spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas said. “The board has a wide representation of elected officials and community members throughout the area, including Council Member Fererras-Copeland — whose district covers the majority of this park — and Speaker Mark-Viverito, who represents the City Council.”

Lancman’s suit alleges that the direct funding of the alliance and the lack of board representation for the three other Council members violates the City Charter and the Administrative Code.

Specifically, Section 109 of the City Charter provides: “All revenues of the city, of every administration, department, board, office and commission thereof, and of every borough, county and other division of government within the city, from whatsoever source except taxes on real estate, not required by law to be paid into any other fund or account shall be paid into a fund to be termed the ‘general fund.’”

The money paid by the Willets Point developers and the USTA over the next two decades in exchange for their use of city parkland are “revenues of the city,” which should be paid into the general fund and appropriated in accordance with the detailed and transparent budget process laid out in the City Charter, Lancman said.

Additionally, he said, Administrative Code Section 18-137(b) requires that non-profit entities such as the alliance have as voting board members at least one representative from each overlapping Council district and one representative for each two abutting districts, “designated in consultation with the Council members representing the districts in which the park is located or which abut said park.”

The alliance bylaws completely ignore this carefully balanced formula for ensuring that the public’s elected representatives have due input into the alliance’s decision-making, Lancman said.

His suit seeks a declaration that both the alliance’s funding mechanism and governance structure are illegal.

“Flushing Meadows Corona Park belongs to the public, and the public has a right to a transparent funding process and their full say in how funding decisions are made,” Lancman said. “Instead the de Blasio administration has created yet another shadowy quasi-governmental entity to evade public scrutiny and reward its political allies with governmental favors.”

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

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