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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Times
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Park Deals Chip Away at City’s Gems

Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan is a smart-looking fellow, whether clad in Burberry blue or desert white.

And he is apparently a falcon-eyed businessman, as this Abu Dhabi sheikseems about to persuade New York City officials to part with 13 precious acres of parkland for the not-so-princely sum of $1 per year, according to Crain’s New York. In exchange, he will pay for a $340 million stadium for his soon-to-be-acquired Major League Soccer team.

In this way, the city chips away at one of its workaday gems, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

A sylvan strand between parkways and highways, the busiest of Queens’s parks already bears the weight of several stadiums and parking lots.

Javier Valdes is a director of Make the Road New York, a nonprofit group that works to empower the hundreds of thousands of working-class and poor residents of Queens. The group expects to fight for paid sick days and better wages. It does not expect to battle to preserve the little green space available to the densely packed neighborhoods.

“We call this park the ‘pulmones’ of Queens, the lungs of the city,” he says. “Why are we giving our land away to an oil tycoon?”

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, as is his wont, wrinkles his nose at such talk. He is all but tripping over himself in his dash for a mayoral legacy. This corner of Flushing Meadows Park, he said recently, “isn’t very much and isn’t in good shape.” Where to start?

Flushing Meadows, with its tree-lined walking boulevards like Avenue of Progress and Avenue of Industry, reflects the optimism of an earlier age. Its hardscrabble stretches of dirt and rock, its cracked asphalt and dead-limbed trees and the fence-ringed pond reflect the neglect common to parks unaccompanied by hedge fund benefactors.

Our parks make manifest our primal economic divisions. The High Line in Chelsea is an elegant beauty to walk, and its 6.7 acres do wonders for those owners of condominiums whose doors open onto it. Its staffing would please Marie Antoinette; its work force of about 70 includes 3 curators and 10 rangers.

The 1,255-acre Flushing Meadows Park, according to a representative, has 19 full-time workers.

The forces now brought to bear on this homely beauty of a park are impressive. John H. Alschuler Jr., a patrician sort, serves as chairman of the High Line park. In his day job, he is chairman of HR&A Advisors, which pulled in a cool $1.3 million lobbying fee for its efforts to plop that stadium in Flushing Meadows.

Major League Soccer spent more than $2 million last year on lobbyists.

And all of this, of course, reckons without our royal sheik, whose nation inherited roughly 9 percent of the world’s oil reserves. He is a munificent man; he once flew in Jay-Z and Kanye West for his niece’s 16th birthday.

Talk of such excess leaves the lobbyist class giddy. What sum might this man lavish to ensure that the parkland comes unencumbered by the requirement to pay a sales tax?

Sheik Mansour has walked this road before. He bought a second-tier soccer team in Manchester, England, and administered a shower of cash. As The Guardian noted, he built training facilities, smart shops and huge awnings so that no ticket holder need ever feel the rain.

He put on loud concerts on the days the stadium sat empty.

City economic development officials mumble that they won’t allow this in Flushing Meadows. The same officials promised affordable housing in nearby Willets Point, before noting that the start date for that was 2025, maybe.

“All the parts are moving until we’ve actually reached an agreement,” a mayoral spokesman says.

Headaches loom, even for a master builder. The proposed stadium site sits atop federal wetlands and in a flood zone. Dig down five feet and you’re backstroking in the ancient currents of the Flushing River.

Major League Soccer officials talk of building a berm — read “vast mound of dirt” — and placing the stadium atop that. And they propose building a new park on the former Flushing Airport, which sits miles to the northeast and is accessible only by car.

So the fight could be long, which is appropriate when a mayor proposes selling off a greensward inheritance. The Rev. Darrell DaCosta, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Corona, has a congregation whose work weeks are arduous. They are drawn as if by homing beacon to the park.

“It’s in a natural setting that you learn the value of God’s creation,” he notes. “Everything in New York can’t be bought and sold.”

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