‘Not for sale’: Civic leaders oppose Mets owner Steve Cohen’s initiative to develop on parking lot around Citi Field

Mets owner Steve Cohen will hold public visionary sessions regarding future development around Citi Field. (File photo by Lloyd Mitchell)

Civic leaders from northeast and central Queens have organized to oppose Mets owner Steve Cohen’s plan to build a casino or other commercial structures on 50 acres of public parkland surrounding Citi Field that has been used as a parking lot since the 1939 World’s Fair. Their opposition comes days before Cohen holds a “visioning session,” which is expected to draw hundreds to Citi Field on Jan. 7, just as the state’s Gaming Facilities Location Board announced they would begin accepting applications for three downstate casino licenses.

(Courtesy of Queens Future)

The civics have been coalescing against Cohen’s future plans since he made no mention of a casino and instead referred to an “entertainment” venue on “50 acres of vacant asphalt,” in a Dec. 19 press release announcing the visioning session.

“We believe that Steve Cohen is trying to create a perception of public support for a vague concept of an ‘entertainment venue’ — but that he may later misrepresent that as support for a casino to be built on the parkland,” Bayside community activist Jena Lanzetta said. “He’s soliciting public opinion, without disclosing that his plans impact public parkland, or that his true ambition is a casino. We will expose such deceptions every step of the way.”

Civic leaders voicing opposition to Mets owner Steve Cohen’s plans have stopped previous development on the former site of Shea Stadium. (LoScalzo Media Design)

The 50 acres in question — the former site of Shea Stadium — are not only leased for parking operations at Citi Field but also host numerous events, including carnivals and fairs, para-athletic sports matches and a variety of other public uses.

“The land surrounding Citi Field is public parkland, part of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park,” said Richard Hellenbrecht, a founder and officer of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Conservancy. “Yes, it’s paved over and sometimes used as parking spaces for events at Citi Field. But the fact that it’s paved makes it perfectly suitable for the numerous concerts, circuses, festivals, marathons and other popular public events that are held year-round on that very parkland. For Cohen to imply that ‘vacant asphalt’ is all it is, or that it is unused as parkland, is deceptive and misleading — and plain wrong.”

Cohen team officials, who are separate from the Mets front office, say the parkland was alienated by the state Legislature in 1961 to be commercially developed for baseball and parking, but development at the location was thwarted once before.

Many of the civic leaders were plaintiffs in the successful lawsuit that stopped the Queens Development Group from building a 1.4-million-square-foot mall in the same location in 2017. The Court of Appeals upheld a unanimous decision of the Appellate Division that the parkland at issue could not be constructed on for non-park use.

“Our message to state legislators is: Our parkland is irreplaceable. It is not for sale. Contrary to what would-be casino owners may say, public parkland is not ‘developable property,’ and it must never be viewed as such,” Queens Civic Congress President Warren Schreiber said. “Why is Flushing Meadows Corona Park — which this planned ‘entertainment center’ and casino has been proposed in — over decades consistently targeted by commercial schemes when other parks throughout the city are not? Can you imagine a Manhattan developer holding a ‘visioning session’ to consider repurposing the portion of Central Park between 59th and 61st streets? If it’s outrageous to do that in Manhattan, then it’s just as outrageous to do it in Queens.”

The civics argue that construction on parkland is not their sole concern. Any additional year-round attraction would generate even more traffic — further congesting roadways such as the Van Wyck Expressway and the Whitestone Expressway, they say, adding that a casino at the location would draw a “bad element” to that part of Queens.

“Touting the economic benefit of a casino is like putting the proverbial ‘lipstick on a pig.’ In fact, casinos extract wealth from communities, and typically weaken nearby businesses,” Juniper Park Civic Association President Tony Nunziato said. “Casinos depend on problem gamblers for their revenue base and living close to a casino increases the chances of becoming a problem gambler.”

Team Cohen maintains that the area has never been a park “in the truest sense,” and instead it represents a century of waste, mismanagement and neglect.

“For almost 100 years, the area around Citi Field has been 50 acres of empty asphalt and wasted opportunity that isn’t serving the community to its full potential,” a Cohen spokesperson said. “Steve Cohen and his team have been listening to the local community who keep telling us there is more they want from the area around the ballpark. We are currently hosting a series of community visioning sessions to hear directly from those who live and work in the community to help us reimagine the space around Citi Field.”

Both visioning sessions on Saturday have reached capacity.

“Cohen is committed to creating a space that people can come to every day of the year to hang out by the waterfront, enjoy green space, listen to live music, and have plenty of options to eat and drink,” the spokesperson said.

Two community members took part in recent meetings with team officials.

Community Board 7 member John Park, a Flushing resident with a business in Jackson Heights, has attended two recent meetings.

“I agree traffic congestion is a concern in the area, but for 37 years I take the 7 train to work and I see all of the unused space in the parking lot and I think what a waste,” Park said. “I’ve seen their plans and they have green spaces and bike routes, it looks like it would be something cool for the community.”

Former Councilman Costa Constantinides currently serves as CEO of the Variety Boys & Girls Club in Astoria has taken part in earlier meetings and he will “enthusiastically” attend the visioning session.

“I look at the parking lot and I see it’s not meeting its highest and best use, especially when it comes to all that asphalt which leads to runoff and environmental issues,” Constantinides told QNS. He added that he is a big baseball enthusiast who has visited 19 of the ballparks with his son.

“I look around these ballparks and I see what they’ve constructed like the beautiful park they built in Cincinnati and I say to myself that this is what Queens needs and deserves,” he said. “I’ve listened to the Cohens and they’re enthusiastic about talking about the future and that’s what I want to be a part of.”