A MLS Stadium Could Alter Plans for the Railway

A proposed Major League Soccer stadium could add momentum to grassroots efforts to convert an abandoned rail line in Queens into a public park.

MLS recently announced plans to form a yet-to-be-named expansion team and anchor it in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, home of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the New York Mets’ Citi Field. A new stadium at the public park site would require MLS to provide between 10 to 13 acres of new parkland in Queens, making a local community proposal to turn an abandoned rail line into a greenway an attractive option for the league.

“If [MLS] felt like a portion of the property that could ultimately comprise the QueensWay is a solution to them, we would happily entertain those discussions,” said Travis Terry, a member of the group advocating for the greenway conversion.

Using the greenway to fulfill its requirement to replace the parkland would mean collaborating with The Friends of the QueensWay, a group advocating for a 3.5-mile linear park running from Rego Park to Ozone Park. The project alone would not satisfy the league’s total amount of space needed to meet the replacement requirements.

“I think inevitably [the replaced parkland] will be in multiple locations,” said John Alschuler, chairman of Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, the consulting firm representing MLS.

“You’re not going to find a 13-acre [replacement] site,” he said.

One of the multiple locations could be the QueensWay project on land along the former Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Rail Road. The proposed location of the QueensWay, the rails-to-trails project similar to the High Line in Manhattan, would provide up to 8.5 acres of contiguous green space, according to Terry, a member of The Friends of the QueensWay steering committee.

While the QueensWay proposal would not completely satisfy MLS’s obligation in terms of substitute acreage, the league could support the QueensWay plan considerably with funding and help designing the park and developing community programs.

“I believe a collaboration with MLS would add momentum to the QueensWay project for two reasons,” Terry wrote in an email.

First, MLS could “fund a section of the QueensWay, creating a source of private money for the park,” he said. “This commitment could also possibly leverage additional funds for the rest of [the] QueensWay,” he stated.

Second, Terry said the Friends could work with MLS to design a portion of the park and “potentially create active programming for nearby residents – especially the kids – to enjoy.”

Terry and Marc Matsil, the New York State director of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization that seeks to conserve land for public use, met with a consultant from Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler in July 2012 to discuss a possible partnership between the organizations and MLS. 

“My understanding is that they’re conducting a lot of research, [doing their] due diligence and exploring a variety of different options…to address the park space they need to create,” Terry said. “[MLS] looked at the Rego Park section of what would be the QueensWay.”

The league has been in negotiations with the city for months to build a 25,000-seat stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The stadium would be built on a 6.5-acre site, which is now Industry Pond, two acres of concrete surrounding the pond and no more than two acres of grassland, according to MLS.

Existing public soccer fields would be renovated prior to stadium construction and available for recreational use for the duration of the project, according to MLS President Mark Abbott.

The league has not yet drawn up specific designs for any potential replacement park site, said Risa Heller, a MLS spokesperson.

Several land use hurdles stand in MLS’s way, which the league is waiting to clear before making site-specific plans, she said.

As is required by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, applicable after Flushing Meadows Corona Park received federal grant money in 1978 and 1981, “substitute lands [must] be provided that are of at least equal fair market value, and…offer reasonably equivalent recreational opportunities,” according to the Handbook on the Alienation and Conversion of Municipal Parkland in New York.

MLS will need to negotiate with the city, which is required to submit park alienation and conversion requests to the state. New York State must then gain approval from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the National Park Service, as mandated by the LWCF Act, in order for MLS to start stadium construction.

The city has not yet made any formal requests to the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the liaison between the city and the National Park Service. 

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the league’s plan is “to replace every acre of parkland, acre for acre.”

But some residents have concerns about the proposed stadium being built in Queens and the parkland being replaced.

“They are trying to be as abstract and unspecific as possible,” said Will Sweeney of the Fairness Coalition of Queens, an 11-member coalition of civic groups, community-based organizations, cultural institutions and amateur sports leagues, which aims to ensure that any design changes to Flushing Meadows Corona Park include input from local residents. 

Heller said MLS is aware of community concerns about unsatisfactory replacement park space, such as missed target dates and inconvenient locations for replacement parks.

“Major League Soccer is 100 percent committed to replacing parkland in a timely manner,” Heller said.

Along with the stadium, the new expansion team would be created and run by an owner, not yet announced.

At a Dec. 4 MLS presentation of stadium plans at the Queens Theater, Garber insisted that the new team would be firmly embedded in the community, citing pregame fan marches which would support local businesses, free youth soccer academies and other community programs.

“Major League Soccer can come out with the rosy, best case scenario for all this stuff,” Sweeney said. “But we don’t even know who the owner of the team will be, so it could be a person who just doesn’t care about the park or the community.”

The recent construction of the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx is an example of promises unfulfilled, Sweeney said. There, parkland was opened next to the new stadium more than a year after it was originally pledged. Additional smaller parks were also built, but they were scattered throughout the area.

Terry said he thinks it’s best to consider each park replacement project as its own.

“You can’t compare what has transpired in other projects in the city to what MLS is intending to do [in Queens],” he said. “My sense is that [MLS is] really looking to do the right thing here.”

Terry said The Friends of the QueensWay has not looked into specific parameters the group would hope to establish for working with MLS. 

But he said, “We would ask that the community play a role in the design of any new park.”

It is not only a matter of space that worries residents.

“A major concern around the community is about accessibility,” said Theo Oshiro, of Make the Road New York, a member of the Fairness Coalition. 

The former rail line’s closest point to the proposed stadium site is about two miles away. The line extends over three miles, which would leave locals in Flushing, Corona and Elmhurst with long distances to travel to parkland currently within walking distance.

According to Alschuler, 30 to 35 possible replacement sites have been identified by MLS.

While he did not elaborate on the location of other sites under consideration, beyond mentioning some sites in Corona and along the Flushing River, he said the replacement parkland “has to be in Queens.” 

“It should serve residents who currently use Flushing Meadows Corona Park,” Alschuler said.

Sweeney has doubts about MLS’s sincerity, citing their lack of communication thus far.

“There’s a hostility towards the community and a view that it’s weak and can be ignored,” he said.

With proposals for both a facility expansion by the USTA and a new in-park mall by a private group on the radar, space in the park could become significantly reduced in the next few years. Replacement land would be created, but the preference is to keep what is already here, Sweeney said.

“Parkland is very limited in our local neighborhoods and very precious. This is kind of the lungs of the community,” said Anna Dioguardi, of the Queens Community House, another member of the Fairness Coalition.

She disagreed with the notion of the stadium being built on “unused” space occupied by Industry Pond. 

“It’s still parkland, regardless of whether or not it’s water. It’s still open space,” Dioguardi said.

She said she didn’t think building many small parks, like the city’s Greenstreets, or the 8.5-acre QueensWay qualified as adequate replacement parkland.

“It’s not replacing what we’d be losing,” she said.

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Photo Slideshow Produced by Danielle Valente