'Toxic' Site Eyed as Replacement Parkland in MLS Soccer Stadium Proposal

By Nigel Chiwaya on October 9, 2012 6:49am 

FLUSHING MEADOWS — Major League Soccer is scrambling to come up with replacement parkland as part of its proposed soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park — and a toxic site along the Flushing River is among the parcels under consideration.

The league, which wants to take up to 13 acres of land in the park in order to build a 25,000-seat stadium, is required by law to replace any land used for the project, which has sparked controversy from critics who called it a land grab.

But difficulty finding suitable sites is forcing the league to consider land along the polluted banks of the Flushing River in Willets Point, some of which is currently owned by the MTA, as well as several other pieces of land that do not adjoin the park.

League spokeswoman Risa Heller confirmed that MLS is indeed looking at the waterfront site, in addition to several other locations around the borough.

"MLS seeks to develop a parkland replacement plan that is driven by the wants and needs of the community members and local leaders," Heller said in an email. "We have begun working with community leaders to identify parcels."

Donovan Finn, a professor of urban planning at Stony Brook University, who has been actively following the developments of the plan, said the league likely isn't having luck finding anything near the site inside the 1,255-acre park.

"There's really not a lot of space out there," he said.

In addition to the waterfront, the league is also looking at a lot near abandoned train tracks in Rego Park, MLS officials confirmed. Both sites come with their share of issues.

One of the locations under consideration, a 12-acre site along the Flushing Creek's western bank, is owned by the MTA. The agency's chairman Joe Lhota has indicated that the agency would be willing to part with the land, telling Capital New York that the MTA can sell land as long any deal is "a fair market value."

However, its proximity to gritty Willets Point and the Flushing River, which has been a dumping ground, has left the site polluted. Finn called the land "toxic," and a 2011 MTA presentation said that the land had "poor soil conditions" that would require remediation.

The exact nature of the pollutants was not immediately clear, but the feds charged dozens of people more than a decade ago with dumping raw sewage and motor oil into the water.

The potential Rego Park site is a 16.6-acre land parcel near the abandoned Rockaway Beach branch Long Island Rail Road tracks. However, the site is located 3 miles away from the parkland it would replace.

In addition, the fate of the train tracks that border the site is up in the air, as two groups are currently debating future use of the line — with one group aiming to resume service along the tracks, and the other looking to make it a "High Line"-style park.

Queens State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, who met with MLS officials on Thursday, said the Rego Park site was the "most promising" of the replacement parcels suggested, but noted that all of the parcels under consideration would require further study.

Stavisky also said the league had offered to renovate playgrounds around the district — an offer that she found insufficient.

"They talked about improving playgrounds, but I said to them, 'Who's going to maintain them?'" Stavisky said. "Just to fix them up and put monkey bars in them doesn't mean someone's going to maintain them."

In addition, the MLS has offered to renovate and improve the nine soccer fields that surround Industry Pond, the proposed stadium's site. Speaking to the press on Friday, league commissioner Don Garber promised that the fields would be opened before the stadium's completion.

A deal has not yet been reached with the city, but the league unveiled renderings of the proposed stadium last week.

There is precedent for putting stadiums atop former parkland. The Yankees were given Macombs Dam Park The Bronx in 2006 as the site for a new Yankee Stadium. As part of the deal, the Yankees agreed to turn the old stadium into Heritage Field, a public baseball park.

The Yankees and the city promised that the field would be open by December 2010, but construction delays pushed the opening back to Spring 2012, leaving Bronx residents without a park for almost six years.

Joan Byron, a policy director for the Pratt Center for Community Development, said that the Bronx fiasco is part of the reason that some Queens residents, who have held town hall meetings and started an online petition against the development, are fighting the stadium.

"People in Queens are looking at that precedent and saying, 'We don't accept this,'" Byron said. "They also think that the promised benefits aren't going to materialize."

The Parks Department said in a statement that it was "engaged in an exploratory conversation with MLS to determine whether a stadium would be feasible. We have not received a formal proposal."

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