Flushing Meadows park planners find a soccer stadium idea not ‘necessarily’ terrible

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Flushing Meadows Corona Park. (Flushing Meadows Corona Park Strategic Framework Plan)
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The authors of a 2008 plan to resurrect Flushing Meadows Corona Park definitely didn't envision yet another stadium going there.

Yet, in interviews about a proposal by Major League Soccer to locate one in the park, the two lead authors seemed surprisingly open to the idea, depending on how it's executed, and on what the community gets out of it. At the very least, they said, it made more sense than a certain other new stadium in downtown Brooklyn. 

"I don’t think it’s necessarily a terrible idea," said Laurie Hawkinson, a principal at Smith-Miller+Hawkinson Architects, though she said its terribleness, or lack thereof, will depend on how the stadium is actually incorporated into the park.

"I imagine someone could do a really great stadium and resuscitate the park and all kinds of things," she said, adding that the stadium might be a way to "leverage some funds" to transform Flushing Meadows into something more closely resembling its much better maintained Manhattan counterpart, Central Park.

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"I mean, to me it makes more sense than where they put that other one in Brooklyn, the Barclays," said Hawkinson. "It’s like, oh my god, the most congested place in Brooklyn, and I’m going to put a stadium there."

Nicholas Quennell, a partner at landscape architecture firm Quennell Rothschild and Partners and the other lead author of the strategic plan, said he thought the Major League Soccer proposal to build a 25,000-seat stadium on the site of a long-disused World's Fair fountain, known as the Pool of Industry, "was actually intelligent."

"You know, it seems to me, it's true that the park has always been a kind of dumping ground for anything that couldn't find a home anywhere else," he said. "But on the other hand, it is that kind of place. And because it's never had a very clearly defined landscape and because there's so much still left over from the World's Fair, it's almost appropriate that it should receive these kinds of uses."

In 2008, Hawkinson and Quennell (and Quennell's partner Mark Bunnell) co-authored the city-commissioned "Flushing Meadows Corona Park Strategic Framework Plan," the purpose of which was to enable the park to achieve its "full potential by establishing a long term vision, a basis for decisions about the Park’s management and the allocation of attention and resources for the coming years."

"It's incredibly used by the diverse community that surrounds it," Hawkinson told Capital. "But it's been very neglected, so our position was just to try and move it forward as a landscape that could be sustained."

The 1,255 acres that now comprise the largest park in Queens were once marshland, before, in the early 20th century, they became a dump.

The mountain of garbage that came to occupy it inspired a famous scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, according to the report:

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.

In 1937, then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses began transforming the valley of ashes into a park for the 1939 World's Fair. It became the site of the 1964 World's Fair, too.

Since then, the park and its monuments have fallen into disrepair. 

The 2008 strategic framework was designed to transform Flushing Meadows Corona Park from a fragmented, confusing, flat, uninspired, pavement-ridden open space into a grade-A greensward.

First, like Major League Soccer, the plan called for demolishing the Pool of Industry. But instead of a stadium, Hawkinson and Quennell's plan would create "festival grounds" where people could gather.

Also, the authors called for unearthing the Flushing River, which now runs through an underground culvert into the Pool of Industry, and reroute it along the park's east side so as "to create a continuous ribbon of water" that would ultimately connect to Meadow and Willow lakes, both of which would be restored.

"By demolishing the eyesore of a fountain, which is out of scale with current uses and is not operational, we could route the river east of its original course, skirting the eastern edge of the Park close to the fountain’s present location," the plan reads. "This will allow for the creation of a vital new festival grounds space almost twice as large as the Great Lawn in Central Park."

They would also preserve the other historical and now decaying remnants of the World's Fairs, like the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion, and drastically improve access to, and circulation within, Flushing Meadows.

Notably, Quennell and Hawkinson also used the plan to criticize some of the park's existing institutions, including Citi Field and the National Tennis Center, for taking park space without contributing much in return, aside from some "luster" to the greensward's image.

“Citi Field and, to a lesser extent, [the National Tennis Center] are the most incompatible uses due to their huge demand for parking and the spillover effect on surrounding neighborhoods, especially when their schedules overlap," they wrote.

From a strict financial standpoint, they also contribute nothing directly to the park, instead sending whatever fees they do pay into the city's general fund, to be used for whatever park or non-park-related purposes the city deems appropriate.

So, what ever came of that strategic framework?

"Don't ask me," said Quennell.

The Parks Department declined to reveal the price of the strategic plan, but it said that not all of its recommendations went unheeded.

According to the department, the city has commissioned a structural study of the World's Fair monuments and prepared scoping documents outlining how much it would cost to stabilize and restore them.

Also, the city has, among other things, reconstructed paths along Meadow Lake to improve drainage, planted more than 12,000 trees near Willow Lake as part of its Million Trees program, and created new signage in the park to make it easier to navigate.

Unlike Quennell and Hawkinson, some of the early critics of the proposed stadium, who in many cases also object to the expansion of the National Tennis Center and the creation of a gigantic mall west of Citi Field, take issue with the very notion of a stadium in such a central part of the park.

"We do agree with the architects that anybody that becomes an integral part of the park should pay and invest in the maintenance of the park," said Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, which has joined in a coalition of neighborhood organizations critical of the three developments.

But Valdes said the coalition also has other concerns, likes whether it's even appropriate to put a professional league stadium inside an underfunded, defrauded park that already hosts more than its share of space-hogging, car-attracting, hermetic institutions. 

"The soccer fields will be displaced but M.L.S. has made a commitment to replace those fields," said Valdes, referring to the heavily used soccer fields surrounding the site of the proposed stadium. "It's just, what does it mean to have a facility of that size in that part of the park? It's in a critical part of the park, and I think that of itself does change the dynamic of how people use the park."

Major League Soccer badly wants the Queens stadium, which would allow it to establish a second team in the New York area, creating an instant rivalry with the Red Bulls franchise in Harrison, N.J. and giving the league more bandwidth in what ought to be its most lucrative media market. Since March, starting well before its plans became public, the league has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars locally on political consulting, lobbying and project management.

In a statement, Major League Soccer spokesperson Risa Heller said, "We are deeply committed to being a partner to Flushing Meadows Corona and supporting its long-term viability and vibrancy. We have committed millions of dollars to upgrade and renovate the community soccer fields before we build our stadium, and are talking with the community about other improvements they would like to see. We plan to continue this conversation and being a big part of the community, just as we do in every other community where we have teams."

Quennell, one of the two lead authors of the strategic plan for the park, said it was essential that the park get something substantive in return, and Major League Soccer's promise to rebuild the existing soccer fields surrounding the site of the future stadium doesn't necessarily suffice.

"I think they could probably do more," he said. "If I lived in that community, I'd be putting as much pressure on them to get as much as I could back, in terms of the benefits, because they clearly are preempting a fairly big chunk of park for one specific use."

Homepage photo by dougtone via flickr.