MLS Lobbyist Erodes Queens Parkland While on High Line Board, Critics Say

By Paul DeBenedetto on December 18, 2012 7:39am 

QUEENS — Critics of a proposed Major League Soccer stadium say the head of a MLS lobbying firm deserves a penalty card for advocating for public space in Manhattan — even as he pushes for a plan that threatens parkland in Queens.

Lobbying and real estate consulting firm HR&A, chaired by John H. Alschuler Jr., has been paid more than $920,000 by the professional soccer league — which is trying to build a new stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park — to lobby the mayor's office, the City Parks Department, local community boards, the state Assembly and the state Senate, among others, according to public records.

But Alschuler is also chairman of Friends of the High Line, which fought for the creation of the upscale park that runs up the West Side of Manhattan — something activists say is in direct contrast to the Queens plan.

"I think it's incredibly ironic," said Donovan Finn, board member of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance, "that someone who apparently has a view that creating more parkland in one of the wealthiest areas in New York City would be so out front on a project to take away more public parkland from a more economically tenuous part of the city."

The development of a 25,000-seat soccer stadium is one of a series of projects being planned for Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The stadium would replace an area that includes the Fountain of the Planets, which residents say has been left in disarray due to neglect.

But some have called the development a land grab, and Alschuler's attachment to the High Line, first reported online by the blog A Walk in the Park, has highlighted a growing frustration among those who are opposed to the stadium.

"This would never happen in Manhattan," said Hilary Klein, a lead organizer at Make the Road New York. "Yes, people in Queens love soccer. But people in Queens also want a place to play soccer."

Critics say poor communities already have less access to green space than rich communities. The addition of the stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park would do more to add to that divide, said Valeria Treves, executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment.

"There's disparities in terms of park space throughout the city," Treves said. "Unfortunately, this is following those patterns."

But MLS and Alschuler have said they've heard the public's concerns and are doing what they can to assuage fears. Alschuler himself said his company spends less on lobbying and more on consulting for MLS, which he said could only improve the park with a new stadium.

"Everybody would agree that Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is a park in need of significant investment," Alschuler said. "Major League Soccer will be an important source of investment, and will improve the character and quality of the park."

Although the stadium will take up public space, Alschuler insisted that "every inch" of parkland would be replaced in another location.

Some of those locations so far recommended by MLS have been labeled brownfield sites, which critics have called toxic. But Alschuler pointed to the brownfields as an opportunity to clean up wasted space and make use of it for Queens residents.

"I have spent 20 years of my life working on improving the character and quality of open space in New York City," Alschuler said. "I believe the presence of the Major League Soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park will improve the quality of open space."

But his assurances have done little to undo the mistrust of some local activist organizations. The Fairness Coalition of Queens, which includes organizations like the Jackson Heights Green Alliance and Make the Road, have staged demonstrations across the city against the development of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

On Dec. 9, a crowd of neighbors and activists that included members of the coalition marched on the park with signs reading "Put the Soccer Stadium in Central Park" and "Park Not For Sale."

And on Dec. 12, the Fairness Coalition delivered more than 4,000 signatures to City Hall from local residents in opposition to park development. 

Alschuler's involvement has only added to locals' wariness of Major League Soccer, according to Anna Dioguardi, an organizer for Queens Community House and a member of the Fairness Coalition.

"There's a lot of questions, a lot of concerns," Dioguardi said. "Many things like this continue to come up that lead us and the community to question the integrity of Major League Soccer and the benefit they'll bring to the community."

The project has seen its share of support, however. Assemblyman Francisco Moya and State Sen. Jose Peralta, who represent nearby districts, have argued the stadium would bring much-needed economic activity to the borough.

Peralta, who said he understands the concerns some critics have, noted there is "lots to like" about the project, including the promise of temporary and permanent jobs, as well as an affordable attraction for many local soccer fans. Tickets to games for the New York Red Bulls currently start at $25.

Although he said his support of the stadium is contingent on whether the city and MLS make good on replacing the parkland, Peralta, like Alschuler and other supporters, doesn't see the development as the removal of public space.

"They are going to be improving the parkland, leaving it in a much better condition than it currently is," Peralta said. "I think they're on the right track."

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