Five Questions To Ask About An MLS Soccer Stadium In Flushing Meadows Park
The week before last, rumors began cropping up that Major League Soccer's long-running search for a place to put a new New York City team -- a search that had circumnavigated the boroughs from Pier 40 in the West Village to Randall's Island and Willets Point -- had settled on a site: the northeast corner of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, not far from the U.S. Open tennis center. On Friday, MLS president Mark Abbott declared that he's been talking to elected officials in Queens about the park site, and that MLS is "thrilled" at the prospect of "bringing the world's sport to the world's park."
The world's park, it should be noted, is already a bit smaller than when it was carved out of The Great Gatsby's "valley of ashes" by city parks czar Robert Moses to become the site of the 1939 World's Fair. In 1964, Moses lopped off the northernmost edge of the park to make way for Shea Stadium, and erected the Singer Bowl (now Louis Armstrong Stadium) in a former meadow just south of there to host events for that year's World's Fair. (Yes, Moses had a thing for World's Fairs.) In the late '70s, the U.S. Tennis Association took over Armstrong Stadium, and subsequently extruded enough additional stadiums and tennis courts to take up most of the park's northern quadrant.
The current MLS plan would plop a stadium down atop the awesomely named Fountain of Industry (also known, nearly as awesomely, as the Pool of Industry and the Fountain of the Planets), a 1964-era cement pool that is mostly notable today for stagnant water and the Canada geese who love it. The fountain is surrounded, though, by several freshly turfed, heavily used Parks Department soccer fields, which would have to relocate to make way for a pro soccer landing pad; MLS says it would build new fields to replace those displaced from the park.
While all of this is still obviously early in the talking stages, it's far enough along to come up with a list of questions that all right-thinking New Yorkers should be asking about the latest multi-million-dollar stadium plan to come down the pike:
Who's going to pay for it?
MLS officials have indicated that they intend to use their own money to build the stadium, but have otherwise been stingy with details. If past history is any guide, the league will likely go the "We'll pay for construction if you give us free land" route, which is how Red Bull Arena was funded in Harrison, New Jersey. If so, the city would only be on the hook for giving up parkland -- and MLS would presumably have to pay for that would be legally required to create in exchange. (Newsday pegs this as eight acres, but the relatively compact Red Bull Arena takes up more than twelve.)
That could mean a hefty price tag for MLS, as the New York Red Bulls stadium in Harrison cost $200 million to build, and Queens real estate doesn't come cheap. Gothamist reports that MLS would be asking for an "unprecedented" $100 million expansion franchise fee for a Queens team, which would certainly help reduce the sting. But it's still going to be important to see how the numbers on this actually pencil out -- especially considering the last time New Yorkers were promised a "no public subsidies" stadium and how that turned out.
Can MLS find replacement parkland?
Anyone seeking to remove park space from public use in New York state enters a murky tangle of state legislation, federal regulations, and common law, but the upshot is: If you want to use parkland, you have to create an equal amount of park space has to be created that's of equal "recreational usefulness" and comparable location. As an exercise, try scrolling around this aerial photo of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to find eight (or 12) acres that isn't already taken up by a crowded neighborhood or an existing park -- short of decommissioning a highway, it's going to be a tough squeeze.
This is precisely the dilemma that the Yankees faced in building their new stadium atop a Bronx park, and even though they had a ready-made solution for much of the acreage -- the site of the original Yankee Stadium -- they still resorted to an amalgam of parks on top of garages and in scattered vest-pocket sites to come out even (and some critics still insist they fudged the numbers to do so).
Can MLS replace the soccer fields it plans to obliterate, and how long will that take?
Again, the Yankees precedent here isn't great, as their new ballfields didn't open until nearly six years after the old ones were plowed under. Of course, MLS wouldn't need to wait for demolition of an old stadium before building new soccer fields. But given city officials' prior willingness to accept that "replacement" needed mean right now, it's something that Queens soccer players should probably keep a close eye on.
Can the New York area support two MLS teams?
Counting on a long-term fan base for an MLS team is always a dodgy prospect, given the long, sad history of professional soccer in this country and the relative newness of the league. Still, the league has managed to expand rapidly, going from 10 to 19 teams over the last seven years, and you only need to look around at the growing number of Chelsea and FC Barcelona jerseys on the subways to see that soccer is beginning to nose its way in among America's Big Four sports in popularity. Plus, of course, New York is not just a city of soccer-loving immigrants, it's damn huge: New York City has more people than the last six MLS expansion cities combined.
The bigger question here is whether the Red Bulls could continue to thrive without the steady stream of soccer-hungry New Yorkers who ride the PATH train out to Harrison. But that would be Harrison's problem, and MLS's, not the city's.
Can this get political approval?
The project would need approval from both the city council and state legislature (thanks to that whole parkland thing), and while the council should be an easy get if both Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn climb on board, the legislature is always a wild card. (Albeit a bit less wild now that Pedro Espada is gone.) The big worry for MLS has to be that someone with political clout will throw their weight behind opposing this -- someone, say, like the owners of the Mets, who the Daily News reported are "wary" of a soccer stadium on their doorstep.
Of course, MLS officials could always try to make their enemies their friends by offering to deal the Mets in as preferred owners of a prospective Queens franchise -- something they've expressed an interest in before. But that's many miles of haggling ahead of us, and what lies at the end only T.J. Eckleburg knows for sure.