The price of Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Can a city park be for sale? That’s the question tearing at Queens residents right now, as the U.S. Tennis Association seeks to renovate and expand the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center inside Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

Given a chance to weigh in at a recent meeting, Jackson Heights residents hurled outrage.

“It doesn’t matter how much you can pay — parkland is not for sale,” declared an elderly Queens resident who approached the microphone at the Community Board 3 hearing. Later that night, in an advisory vote, nearly every member of the board agreed with her: 33 voted against a proposal to take less than an acre of parkland to accommodate a relocated stadium grandstand, with just one in favor and one abstention.

The USTA says the home of the US Open is public space — news that surprises lifelong neighbors. Photo: Gianna Palmer

But even as it rejected the expansion, the board also presented the city and association with a detailed wish list for local benefits to go along with the project. It included $20 million to establish a conservancy for neighboring Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a minimum $500,000 annual donation for park improvements, and concession space where local Queens restaurants and vendors could sell food.

The community board covering neighboring Corona did the same thing: voted “no” on the expansion, but with a host of stipulations, including a $15 million trust fund for improvements to the park and the creation of a community center.

And they weren’t alone in making demands. Three other community boards near the park, and, as of last week, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, have all weighed in with their own menus of demands, such as ticket discounts, aesthetically pleasing parking garages and a Community Advisory Board, along with a new conservancy to maintain Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Only Community Board 9, in Kew Gardens, simply voted “no.”

The bidding frenzy was set off by a controversial decision by the city Department of Parks and Recreation as it advances the USTA’s expansion plan. Usually, when parkland disappears for development it is replaced inch for inch — what happened, for example, at Yankee Stadium after it overtook the former Macombs Dam Park in the Bronx.

But in the case of the Tennis Center – which each September hosts the US Open Tournament — the city has moved not to replace the lost parkland. Instead, it has encouraged the Tennis Center to provide funds to help maintain the heavily used and under-maintained Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

“In this instance, the City is requesting financial compensation to be used for park improvements, instead of replacement parkland,” said a Parks Department spokesperson in an email. “We believe these improvements will provide more benefit to the users of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.”

Opponents contend that encroaching on the park, without replacing the lost land, risks going down a slippery slope.

“When and if people say ‘It’s just .68 acres,’ our answer is and always has been that it’s a dangerous precedent to set,” said Donovan Finn, a Jackson Heights resident, urban planning professor and, until last month, a member of Community Board 3. “If it’s one square foot it’s a dangerous precedent to set.”

Asking for revenue in lieu of land isn’t unheard of, according to Roderick Hills, a professor at NYU Law School and an expert in land-use regulation. The Parks Department has allowed it with the expanded South Ferry subway station in lower Manhattan, for example, as well as the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league stadium in Coney Island.

“I can understand why the city would say, ‘Rather than force us to find another half an acre of land someplace, why don’t we get revenue from a private organization?” Hills said.

What rankles many community members is that the amount of money the park might receive won’t be determined until after the tennis association’s plans are voted on by the City Council. The Parks Department said the state legislature will make the final determination.

Kim Ohanian, chair of the parks committee for Community Board 7 in Flushing, which voted in favor of the project, said she grilled a Parks Department official as her board weighed its decision.

“I kept asking for a dollar value of what 30,000 feet of premium parkland is worth, and he didn’t answer me,” Ohanian recalled. Instead, Ohanian recalls, the Parks official simply said the amount “would be significant.”

“That’s like offering to buy my house, and telling me how much you’re going to pay after I’ve already given you the keys,” said Finn from CB 3. “It seems backwards.”

At the core of the city’s argument for money instead of replacement park land is that the Tennis Center is not a private facility, but in fact a public space — and a “park like” public space at that. It’s an arguably bold claim for a complex where an hour on the court costs $66 at peak times, and which is off limits for one month every year during the US Open tournament.

Of the .68 acres that the tennis association has proposed taking over, “that parkland will continue to be used for parks purposes,” a Parks spokesperson wrote in an email. And legally, it will remain a park.

Parks activists beg to differ, saying that the tennis association is not a park at all, but an unwelcoming private entity.

“They have a giant steel fence around it that basically says psychologically to people, ‘Don’t come here,’” said Will Sweeney, a founder of the Fairness Coalition of Queens, which monitors proposed changes to and around Flushing Meadows Corona Park. (Plans for a soccer stadium and neighboring shopping mall are also in the works, and highly controversial.)

“Literally, there’s nobody who I’ve ever talked to — of hundreds of people who I’ve talked to about this — who thought this facility was open to the public,” Sweeney added.

Hills of NYU Law School says the community group is asking the right question: “Is it really still public land if it’s part of a private, exclusive tennis organization?”

On a recent weekday afternoon, Benson Ou, 21, was taking a break from skateboarding at a skatepark in view of the Billie Jean King tennis center.

“It’s all there for events, it’s not there for the public,” Ou said of the facility. When informed that the public was in fact allowed in, Ou seemed surprised.

“I didn’t even know that,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life.”

The tennis association, which runs programs for seniors, veterans, and children in area public schools, acknowledges it could be doing better at getting the word out. New signs on the facility’s fence direct visitors toward the entrance and read “OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.”

“We’re going to continue to do more and more outreach, to make people more and more aware that the facilities are available,” said Daniel Zausner, COO of the tennis association.

Holly Leicht, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said the problem is that New York has no set legal standard for what defines public use of a space. Approving more land to be added to a private group’s lease without replacing it risks setting a precedent that could be emulated at parks elsewhere in the city.

“It’s certainly a concern that some other creatively minded private organization could try to make the same argument,” Leicht said.

Leicht noted that one reason many community members are so sensitive to the loss of less than an acre of park is that they feel the tennis association got a sweetheart deal when it expanded from 21.6 to 42 acres in 1993. Then, too, the land it took over remained technically mapped as a park.

That history suggests that getting $10 or $20 million this time around could be a stretch.

In the 1990s, when the tennis center expanded its footprint by 30 times what it’s proposing this time around, the USTA created an $8 million trust fund to maintain the park. As the Queens Chronicle recently noted, most of that money went to a new swimming pool and ice rink, not the maintenance of the park as a whole.

Community board members haven’t abandoned hope that the park will gain financially if the tennis center expansion moves ahead.

“The likelihood that we’re going to get a $15 million trust? Not very likely,” said Kim Ohanian of Community Board 7. “Will we get something close to it? I hope so.”

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