The question is a simple one: in their relentless drive to install a stadium and a team in New York City, is MLS callously acting like an evil corporate beast, ruthlessly trampling on the rights, needs and concerns of the poor, immigrant and working families of Flushing, Queens? These folks believe the answer is yes:
But is this, as some would have it, simply your typical, garden-variety NIMBYism of the sort which inevitably pops up 20 seconds after someone suggests building a stadium someplace, or is there more to it?
To be frank, unequivocal and forthright: maybe yes and maybe no.
But as the patrons, fans and customers of MLS, it's important that we recognize whether the league we all know and love is behaving in a manner which disregards the voices of the less fortunate, heartlessly taking away from a powerless population's quality of life in return for a few grubby dollars.
To understand what's going on here, here's a look at what the area looks like today:
At the top of the photo (we'll call it north) stands CITI Field, home of the New York Mets. To the left of the stadium (west) is a large parking lot which, not coincidentally, is where Shea Stadium used to be. This area is called Willet's West.
Across the street to the right of the stadium is an area - Willet's East or, less formally, the Iron Triangle - occupied mostly by auto body and repair shops and the like. The Mets feel this is ugly urban blight which detracts from the serene beauty of their environs; others call it "steady local employment and a place for poor people to get their cars fixed" but we'll come to that in a bit.
(It's important to note that Willet's East was never a part of Corona Park. Willet's West was, however, until the Mets took it to build Shea.)
Directly to the south is the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center - also an alienated part of Corona Park - which is owned and operated by the USTA and home of the US Open Tennis Championships.
(The area between the two is the MTA rail yards)
South of that you see the axis created by two relics left over from the 1964 World's Fair: on the left is the iconic Unisphere, that Earth globe thingie...
...and to the right is the area in question, a nine-or-so acre cement pond.
This was actually constructed for the 1939 World Fair and called The Lagoon of the Nations in which there was a water feature called the Fountain of the Planets.
In actuality it is what's known in the civil engineering biz as a water cauldron, and was built as a flood control mechanism for the Flushing River, which is more than anyone of us wanted to know but what the hell.
In any case, the fountain feature (housed in that white structure in the middle of the thing) hasn't worked for years and the cost to get it up and spraying again is too astronomical to even consider, and no one has for a long time. That issue is as dead as the fountain.
And lest you think this is just me trying to badmouth the thing, I give you local resident and park lover Victor Bravo, 47, a welder from Corona:
“There is nothing here. It’s a wasted space and this water stinks.”
And here is the proposed footprint of the Don Garber Soccer Complex at Flushing Meadows:
That said, it's pretty easy for someone who hasn't set foot in that park in many years and who lives hundreds or thousands of miles away to sit around looking at those pictures and then tell the people who live in the area that all they're really losing is an ugly, smelly, sewage-and-trash-filled sump that they'd be better off without.
It's their neighborhood, they live, work and play there and it's more than a little arrogant of someone who lives and works, for example, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, to grandly announce to them that they can do without it.
There's more to the deal than that of course.
By law, MLS will have to "replace" the 13 acres they'll be taking with 13 acres of parkland someplace else. There are several candidates, none of which adjoin the current park, which can be seen as a positive or a negative, depending on where it ends up being and how accessible it is.
The league will also commit to upgrading and maintaining (and in at least one case, replacing) the current public soccer fields which are heavily used by youth leagues, high schools and others and which are usually in deplorable condition.
(At times local referees have refused to work games on some of them due to safety concerns; a couple years ago the local referee association placed four or five of them off limits and forbade their officials to set foot on them.)
There are a lot more details of course, but overall you can boil the league's case down to simply this:
The 54,667,000 square foot Corona Park will shrink to 54,100,720 square feet, and MLS will build the residents of Queens at least 566,280 square feet of new park space nearby.
Furthermore, as some residents are pointing out, this is in fact a net plus, since they'll be replacing concrete and green slime with grass, trees and soccer fields.
For the other side of the argument - and an intro to the real problem here - here's a map that's part of the Dog and Pony show being put on by the suspiciously well-funded (I love the smell of Astroturf in the morning) "Fairness Coalition of Queens":
Now I don't want to say that they're lying here but of the "stadium construction" section they're laying at the feet of MLS only about 25% is actually part of the actual building. The balance would be rebuilt soccer fields, replanted trees and resodded grassy areas.
So not lying so much as...well, let's say "overstating the truth".
I do wish they had made a more honest representation though because it shows what, to me at least, is the crux of the problem, and it's not MLS.
Rather, it's the other guys, and to put that argument into focus I simply cannot do better than my new best pal Alfredo Centola, President of something called the Malba Gardens Civic association.
The first minute is crucial, as it sums up the argument quite nicely but the second minute is even better as it shows a bunch of guys playing soccer in the park on a field which could be charitably described as a mud pit.
And you have to promise not to laugh when Al initially has a bit of trouble tearing three sheets of paper in half - it's not exactly a phone book - although he recovers nicely:
As Our Man Al explains, there are three proposals on the table:
CITI wants to rip out the businesses east of the stadium and build upscale restaurants and shops they feel are more befitting their status (some mouth noise was given to an agreement to build "affordable housing" there as well, but there are so many escape clauses that nobody actually believes it will happen) AND they want to put a bigassed shopping mall in the Willets West area now used for parking.
The NTC meanwhile, wants to expand a few things - to the tune of $500 million - build a new stadium and, in the process, rip out 400 mature trees in the heart of Queens.
All MLS wants to do is tear out a huge cement toilet bowl, build a stadium - a project which will involve, they say, no more than one single acre of existing grassy area - and then do millions of dollars of renovations to soccer fields and build an additional 13 acre park for the residents.
So guess who's taking the heat?
Hypocritically, but not surprisingly, both the Tennis folks and the Wilpons have lined up staunchly against the MLS project. It seems to them that they're already a fact, and all they're looking for is small adjustments.
MLS is the outsider trying to horn in on their territory, despite the fact that both of them are squatting on Corona Park land which they have never gotten around to replacing, and never will.
The USTA says they're concerned about "noise" from concerts and other events at an MLS stadium. This despite the fact that the league has stipulated that, to avoid adding to local traffic congestion, they won't schedule matches during Mets games or the US Open. But the NTC courts are available for hourly rental, and they say the players would be "distracted" by the music.
But the CITI people are the real bastards at this point.
Despite having had extensive conversations with MLS and thus being very well aware that they intend to play nowhere except a soccer specific stadium, CITI is very publicly telling everyone that they'd be happy to just let NYC2 play at their place.
Local opponents have jumped on this - as they were supposed to; it was just too easy - and are now saying "See? They don't need to build a new place; they can just use CITI Field. Problem solved."
(If you stayed around until the end of Al's video above, he makes this very point.)
This is a particularly dirty shot but I'm told it's the kind of knife-in-the-back that the Wilpons are famous for.
If The Don was a vengeful sort he'd start reminding people every chance he gets that the Mets promised to replace the parkland the took when they built their stadium and have never done so while MLS is fully prepared to do that very thing.
He then might point out that since CITI plans on building a shopping mall on the Willets West lot it's clear that they don't need that land for parking any more, in which case they should return it to the good people of Queens. Don could even offer to sow some grass and plant some trees.
As for the tennis jerks, your average hourly court renter isn't Rafa Nadal and a few tunes wafting over the trees won't really upset his equilibrium. Although if the USTA has their way, there'll of course be a lot fewer trees.
And perhaps Don could point out that since MLS is going to be building and maintaining soccer fields for the common folk of Queens, when can we expect the USTA to provide a similar number of tennis courts for public use?
Finally, Al brings up a comparison that's compelling and easy, but no less false:
The Central Park corollary.
"They'd never let anyone build a stadium in the jewel of Manhattan" they say, and they'd also never let it decay into the kind of condition which we now have at Corona.
First of all, Central Park was very much on it's way to ruin a couple decades ago. The park's neighbors - yes, rich people and even richer corporations to be sure - donated huge sums of money and started a foundation, to which the city ceded to entire park.
So not only does New York not maintain the place - there are some small exceptions - but at it's base they really don't control it either and unless they want to condemn some part or other and take it back by eminent domain they couldn't let someone build on it even if they wanted to.
Others say the city really should do more to maintain Corona; fix the fountain, sod the soccer fields and clean up the place.
Well, as it happens they did spend millions of dollars a couple years ago on the Unisphere and got that fountain up and running again. But public money is tight right now and nobody expects to have the kind of dough it would take to overhaul and maintain FMCP anytime soon.
The MLS project is the kind of public/private partnership that can save the place, or at least parts of it. Maybe if the USTA and the Wilpons had taken the kind of responsibility that MLS proposes to accept, to being a partner with the locals going forward, then maybe the whole thing would be a moot point anyway.
Are there some serious concerns? Absolutely.
Parking is a big one. Fans attending events at the MLS facility will be instructed to park at CITI, but it's a hefty hike from over there. The league says they'll run shuttle buses, which will help of course but the neighbors believe it's likely that they'll first soak up all the on street parking for several blocks in every direction which will among other things, make using the park impossible anyway.
Mostly though, this is a case of a bunch of people who don't have much - money, political muscle or influence downtown - feeling like they're being ignored.
To their credit, the league has spent a good deal of time and effort sending canvassers out into the streets and shops, talking to people, answering their questions and trying to allay their fears.
But it's the $1.7 million they spent last year on "lobbyists" which gets the most attention.
(Note: "lobbying" is not a synonym for "bribery involving hookers and coke")
If and when this deal happens - and the guess here is that it will - it's going to be up to all of us, MLS fans across the fruited plain, to watch and make damned sure that the league keeps it's promises to the people of Queens.
If that happens, I'm betting that ten years out we'll be a much more popular neighbor than the stuffed shirts at the USTA and those lowlife creeps at CITI.