BY DAVE MARTINEZ
Over 500 people crammed into the 487 seat capacity Queens Theater in Flushing Meadow Park for Major League Soccer’s first public foray into the community to sell the benefits of their stadium project.
Dubbed a “town hall,” the closely controlled event felt more like a pep rally. Questions from the audience were only accepted in written form even though the overwhelming majority were there to support the project.
Univision star Fernando Fiore emceed the event while local politicians, business leaders, community organizers and labor representatives flanked MLS Commissioner Don Garber on stage, painting a vibrant economic and social vision for what this project could mean to Queens.
“What it’s about is building a world class soccer stadium here in Queens; a stadium I believe will be one of the best, most prestigious and most beautiful soccer stadiums anywhere in the world,” Garber said.
“We want to bring the world’s game to the world’s park.”
The Commissioner addressed issues facing the project such as concerns over replacement of used park land, the plans to assure public space would not be impeded during construction, the cost of the stadium to the community amongst other worries.
“Our plan is to work with the city of New York and the state of New York to build a stadium in Flushing Meadow Park and replace every acre of park land we use for the stadium, acre for acre, with replacement park land in the community,” he said. In fact, MLS would be contractually obligated to do so.
“One stadium is going to provide tens of millions of dollars invested into the park before we even begin talking about replacement parkland. We will invest tens of millions of dollars in the park; a park that really could use that kind of private infusion.”
According to the league’s layout, 10 to 13 acres of park space would serve as the stadium’s “footprint” in the park. Of those 10 acres, 6.5 acres consist of the closed-off Fountain of Industry, while only 2 acres of current grassland would be used for the stadium itself. The rest is currently concrete.
For those worried that the park would lose vital green areas, Garber revealed an interesting wrinkle to the plans. “All the land around the stadium will be accessible to the public so we will be providing more grass than there is today even though two acres of that site will be grassland,” he said. “You will start seeing when we are able to finalize our renditions that there will be more grass with this stadium than exists in the park today.”
“MLS will not take away any fields,” MLS President Mark Abbott added. “It’s quite the opposite. We will renovate and make better all the fields in the park. We will do it before we begin construction so that no fields will be closed during construction.” The playing fields themselves will be all weather fields managed by the Parks Department which will be available 365 days a year to the general public.
The stadium itself calls for a 25k seat arena that can be expandable to 35k in the years ahead – without the need of further expansion from their current footprint.
“Sometime in the next 30 years, because we believe this will be a popular team, we will be looking for the right to expand it to 35k seats,” he said. “We will not take any more land, we will not have to raise any roofs, we will not have to build it any higher. What we are going to do is build a 25k seat stadium and within that bowl be able to expand it another ten thousand seats sometime in the next 30 years.”
Perhaps the most well received factoid supplied by the league were the economic factors associated with the project. According to league projections, 3,000 temporary and full time jobs will be created with the project. Of those 3,000, 2,100 will be union construction jobs while 150 full time and 700 part time positions will develop from the team and stadium itself. MLS projects $60 million in annual activity and $50 million in tax revenue over the course of 30 years.
Not everyone was a proponent for “MLS to Queens.” A group of 12-15 people dubbing themselves the Fairness Coalition of Queens (or F.C. Queens) protested the event by the lobby area, handing out pamphlets questioning the proposed height of the stadium, flooding concerns associated with the wetlands, road and transportation issues as well as the “fast tracking” of the project.
Even local leaders who were there in support promised to hold the league’s “feet to the fire” when it comes to this ambitious undertaking.
“I do support the soccer field,” Senator Ann Stavisky declared. “I have questions about the relationship between the soccer field, Major League Soccer and the agreement they are going to reach with the City of New York. There are a lot of questions that have not been answered.”
“Obviously there’s lots to like about the MLS proposal,” Senator Jose Peralta said, “but as I said to (MLS) before – we are going to hold your feet to the fire. We are. There were times when city parkland would be lost and replacement parcels would be identified in Dutches County or Rockland County. That’s not going to be acceptable. Not by a long shot.
“But in holding their feat to the fire,” he continued, “let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot. Let’s recognize a good deal for what it is and work together to ensure that all parties hold to their end of their agreement.”
With the overwhelming support of local politicians and the full backing of both the offices of Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo, Garber believes the project, from the stadium to its team and ownership, will all be in place for the 2016 season.
“Our goal is to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world by 2022,” Garber said. “This team and this stadium will help us achieve that. You can’t be a dominant soccer league without having a dominant team in the largest and most important city in the world.”