A soccer-loving sheik gives more grist to Flushing Meadows stadium critics

Flushing Meadows Corona Park. (Charles Smith via Flickr)
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The city-backed proposal to build a $340 million soccer arena in the middle of Queen's largest park was contentious long before Sunday's report that Major League Soccer has lined up an Abu Dhabi oil billionaire to pay for it.

For critics of the project, the potential involvement of Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahya, who owns the Manchester City soccer team in the English Premier League, merely underscores the fact that the stadium would necessitate alienating part of a well-used public park to accommodate a privately owned soccer franchise.

"It means that he can afford to purchase private property," Will Sweeney, a member of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance and a spokesman for the Fairness Coalition of Queens, which opposes the stadium, emailed me.

"It’s great that M.L.S has found someone with the resources and the ability to pay $100 million for this expansion," said Theo Oshiro, a deputy director of Make the Road New York, which is also a part of the Fairness Coalition. "But it really though does call into question the use of public parkland."

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"He should be able to buy his own land," said Jackson Heights Councilman Daniel Dromm, whose district is near the park. "That's basically what this is about. Why does he have to ask for free parkland?"

M.L.S. wants to build a 25,000-seat arena, expandable to 35,000 seats, in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

According to precedent, the 13 or so acres the league wants for the stadium would have to be replaced by an equivalent amount of parkland elsewhere.

The league has yet to say where, exactly, those acres will go and did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

But Major League Soccer does claim to have conducted a comprehensive survey of New York City before arriving at the conclusion that Flushing Meadows is ideal, because of its proximity to mass transit and a critical mass of soccer fans. The site is apparently so perfect that the league will take its new franchise elsewhere if the stadium isn't approved.

But there's another factor that the league typically leaves out of its public presentations: affordability.

Private real estate is expensive. Fortunately for the league, the arena has the stout backing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is determined to get the stadium underway before he leaves office at the end of the year and believes that stadiums are an appropriate use for city-owned parkland

Public real estate controlled by entities other than New York City can also be pricey.

In February, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state agency, told me that it had suggested the league instead use a nearby site south of Roosevelt Avenue, on what is now a bus depot. The league turned the authority down.

Why?

According to the league, putting a stadium on the M.T.A. site would have required the construction of a more-than-$100 million platform, which would have apparently made the whole thing cost-prohibitive.

Recently, Don Garber, the head of M.L.S., said that he hopes to announce a deal with the city by the end of May (and also, as mentioned, that the deal is dead without the park).

"The city has no business taking away parkland to build a professional ball stadium," said Tom Angotti, an urban planning professor at Hunter College. "It’s just bad policy all the way around."

Earlier today, Dromm took a different tack in questioning the stadium, taking aim at the franchise's potential ownership.

“I was shocked to read in the New York Times that the Bloomberg Administration is negotiating to give NYC parkland away to Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, an oil billionaire that helps rule a country where gays or lesbians is a crime punishable by death," he said, in a statement emailed to the press. "This is outrageous. This is also a country where gay and lesbian people could be subject to chemical castration. It is totally unacceptable. I urge my colleagues in the City Council and elected officials across the state to join me in saying that New Yorkers won’t do business with a murderous regime and we won’t sell, trade or giveaway our public assets to those who discriminate and participate in human rights abuses.”

"The human rights record of that country in particular, where they punish gay people by death and by chemical castration, I felt a moral obligation to speak out on that basis," Dromm told me in a follow-up interview.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who earlier today sent out a statement praising N.B.A. star Jason Collins for coming out as gay, had no comment.

Nor did Councilman Julissa Ferreras, in whose district the relevant portion of the park resides, and who in theory will have an outsize say on the City Council about whether and under what conditions the project will be approved.

Update: "M.L.S. has committed to replacing the parkland acre for acre and making significant investments in the park beyond the fields," M.L.S. spokeswoman Risa Heller said in a statement. "The dialogue with the City, electeds and community leaders regarding those commitments will continue throughout the approvals process."