Maintain it: A key official presents a condition for supporting Flushing Meadows projects
It matters what Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras thinks about the three major developments planned for Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
All of the projects are in Ferreras' district. And the City Council, which has to approve each of the projects if they're to go forward, is therefore likely to defer to Ferreras on the question of whether to let them go ahead.
Here's what she told me her approval may, in part, depend on: an agreement by the developers of each project to provide long-term funding for Flushing Meadows Corona Park, through the agency of a new public-private partnership.
"I think everybody understands that it’s very close to a dealbreaker for me," Ferreras told me on Friday.
Though it is more than twice as big as Prospect Park, it has a quarter the staff. Central Park, which is smaller than Flushing Meadows, has nearly eight times as many workers.
"If you go through the park, it really feels as if there’s two workers assigned to the park," said Ferreras.
Not surprisingly, the imbalance in upkeep is directly related to an imbalance in funding.
New York City, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has poured a lot of money into building new parks, but the maintenance budget hasn't kept pace.
For that, the city increasingly relies on public-private partnerships of the sort pioneered by the Central Park Conservancy.
Central Park is surrounded by wealthy people, some of whom are civic-minded enough to contribute to its maintenance and improvement. Sometimes, these people give a lot: hedge funder John Paulson, who lives near the park, donated $100 million last year to the conservancy charged with maintaining it.
Flushing Meadows is not surrounded by wealthy people. But it does have another potential resource at its disposal: the private entities that occupy the park already, or aspire to.
The United States Tennis Association, which controls 42 acres in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, is seeking to expand. At the moment, it contributes no money to the park's general upkeep.
Major League Soccer wants to build a 25,000-seat arena in the park, and while it's promised to replace the 13 acres the arena would occupy and repair the public soccer fields surrounding the proposed site, it has yet to promise any sort of long-term funding.
And a joint venture of Related Companies and Sterling Equities wants to build a huge mall to the west of Citi Field, on a parking lot that's technically parkland. The joint venture has yet to commit to any sort of long-term funding for the park.
Ferreras wants to change that.
"As long as you have a lease and you’re in this park, you should also be responsible for maintaining it," she said.
Her idea is to create an "alliance" made up of community members and representatives of those corporate entities, with the latter committing to contribute money to the park, via the new public-private partnership, over the long term.
"Unlike any other park, we have private entities that greatly benefit from our public space, and I believe that they should be held accountable to do a public-private partnership," she said. "Parks the size of our park, like Prospect and Central Park, both have conservancies. I think that we need to really bring together an alliance, what I’m hoping to call it, with the idea of it being something like a conservancy, but where community members have a voice, where these entities have to commit to a onetime gift and maintenance."
Holly Leicht, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, has been consulting with Ferreras on this issue and strongly backs the idea of a conservancy-type arrangement for Flushing Meadows.
“We would definitely agree that ongoing maintenance, not just a onetime mitigation payment, is an essential component of the processes for all of the projects under review,” she told me. "It seems that some kind of conservancy—a public-private partnership model—makes the most sense for Flushing Meadows Corona Park."
Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for M.L.S., sent over the following statement: "We look forward to continuing our ongoing conversations with Councilwoman Ferreras to figure out the appropriate way for M.L.S. to contribute to the future of Flushing Meadows Corona Park."
A spokesman for the Related-Sterling joint venture sent the following statement: "The Queens Development Group’s project will benefit the entire neighborhood by cleaning up 23 acres of contaminated land and bringing much-needed jobs and economic development to the area, while at the same time creating new open space without impacting a single inch of existing parkland.
“As good corporate neighbors, we are committed to working with the Councilmember and local leaders on issues that are important to the community including, of course, the preservation and enhancement of open space."
UPDATE: "I think our goal here at the USTA—and this is what's happening as we go in front of these community boards—is to hear everybody's thoughts and then kind of take a moment, catch our breath and think about what the appropriate next steps will be," Chris Widmaier, a spokesman for the USTA, told Capital Tuesday afternoon. "We feel, ultimately, that this project is going to have very minimal impact on the park and will do a tremendous amount for the city of New York. That being said, we pride ourselves on being a good neighbor. We feel honored to be in that park, in that location and so we will work with the community boards, we will work with the parks department, we'll work with the elected officials, and we'll work with the city of New York to come up with reasonable solutions to the issues that are presented."