Towers in the Park

Flushing Meadows Corona Park (for now).Photo: Richard Levine/Alamy

How exciting! If the Bloomberg administration can close the deal, a world-class soccer stadium will soon replace Central Park’s underutilized, fenced-off Reservoir. Even better, the Harlem Meer could give way to a giant mall, bringing jobs and new shopping opportunities to a neighborhood sorely in need of both. A few noisy activists object, but the city points to the growing popularity of soccer, and it has promised to find substitute parkland nearby.

The previous paragraph is a preposterous lie, but only because it substitutes Central Park for its less glamorous Queens cousin, Flushing Meadows Corona Park. That’s where a mayor who constantly invokes his green credentials is cheering on a three-pronged corporate invasion of public land. If all the various proposals come to fruition, Major League Soccer will plunk a 35,000-seat stadium on top of the Pool of Industry; the Related Companies and Sterling Equities will jointly build a 1.4 ­million–square–foot shopping center on parkland turned parking lot next to Citi Field, and the National Tennis Center will creep beyond its current borders. By the time all these incursions have been carried out, they will have sucked away more than 40 acres of your land.

Each of these would-be privateers brushes off the damage and trumpets the benefits. The shopping-mall site is filled with baking cars on game days; otherwise it’s an asphalt desert, not really parkland at all. The Pool of Industry is a fetid puddle in a concrete basin, a great, garbage-strewn birdbath. And the USTA wants to expand the National Tennis Center by a measly two-thirds of an acre, a strip so slender that park users will hardly notice its surgical removal. On the plus side, these projects would shower the borough with goodies. Construction jobs! Wider walkways! Playing fields carpeted with artificial turf! Borough pride!

These gifts bedazzle bureaucrats, because they promise to undo decades of selective dereliction. The Bloomberg administration has pumped fortunes into parks all over the city—but not this one. In Manhattan, the private and generously endowed Central Park Conservancy keeps the luminous greenswards buffed and its ball fields camera-ready. The largely immigrant neighborhoods encircling Flushing Meadows Corona Park can’t provide so lavishly. Like most of his predecessors, the mayor has other priorities. Even as earthmovers sculpt new hills on Governors Island, tidy up Washington Square Park, and refashion the shore at Hunters Point South, Flushing Meadows is left to fester.

On a spectacular Saturday afternoon, families hold birthday parties in the shadow of the Van Wyck Expressway, and the scents of lighter fluid and charred meat waft across the dingy expanse. Soccer games fill the threadbare fields, and less formal play spills over into the empty reflecting pools. Skateboarders clatter across the dry fountain beneath the Unisphere. The park is huge and varied—1,255 acres, stretching from the wetlands along Flushing Bay out past the city’s largest lake. The fan-shape symmetry of its core, first landscaped for the 1939 World’s Fair and reworked for the sequel in 1964, evokes the allure of rational modernism. But the vastness is deceptive. Chopped up by highways, polluted by runoff, and muddied by terrible drainage, the park feels like a place of enshrined decay. Despite its size, it almost disappears: If the crowds spilling over the sidewalks of Flushing’s Main Street seem barely aware of their neighborhood Arcadia, it’s because the short walk from congested downtown to playing fields is so unpleasant. It might as well be miles away.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of the new sugarplum visions. The tennis center lies dormant most of the year, gated so that the public can’t even walk in one side and out the other. Major League Soccer promises to become a generous neighbor and renovate public fields, but the proposal, still being negotiated, remains short on specifics and guarantees. One architect’s rendering that circulated prematurely showed the stadium floating and fluorescing like a giant anemone. In the end, though, an as-yet-unspecified team will actually build the thing, and there’s no assurance it won’t opt for an off-the-shelf hack job.

The mall in the parking lot, part of the multi-decade push to transform Willets Point, has a different problem. The city claims that, since a 1961 state law assigned the land where Shea Stadium once stood to the Mets, that site (now next to Citi Field) can be used for commercial purposes without any further review. Still, the law’s intent was to allow for uses that would serve the stadium, and it’s hard to see how a shopping center would do that.

But even if all three projects somehow clicked into a gorgeous choreography of efficient construction, legal argument, and high design, they still wouldn’t be justified.

When the government doesn’t have the money to carry out its chartered duties, it hunts around for a way to shift its burdens to private capital. This is a venerable tradition, and sometimes a good one. The Bloomberg administration prides itself on leveraging private money to improve the public’s life, and the tactic has often worked. Here in particular, the city has been neglecting the basics for so long that it has created a diabolical incentive to shed dusty land in order to get it spiffed up.

But parkland is different. It is the opposite of real estate, an abiding corrective to a rapacious market. Removing it from the public realm requires leaping through an assortment of legislative and regulatory hurdles. The term for this process is alienation, which is apt, since what could be more alien to a free swath of nature than an indoor mall? By legal tradition, alienated parkland must be replaced, acre for acre, and right nearby. But green space isn’t always fungible. A ten-acre chunk in the middle of a park is not the same as a string of tiny parcels on the periphery. The story of the Citi Field parking lot makes it clear that once we let go of parkland, we’re unlikely to get it back.

In 2008, the Parks Department commissioned a study from the landscape architects Quennell Rothschild & Partners and the architecture firm Smith-Miller+Hawkinson that proposed a rich menu of ways to resuscitate the park. The authors decided that the festering pool and its moribund Fountain of the Planets should go, to be replaced by great rolling “festival grounds,” a Queens version of the Sheep Meadow. It was a detailed, ambitious, and expensive vision, which the Parks Department put on its website and out of its mind. That document started a ripple of delusional optimism, while the city continued acting on a different assumption: that we must destroy the park in order to save it.

Towers in the Park