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Feds keep watch over Flushing Meadows

The National Park Service is not requiring a proposed expansion of the tennis center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park to be offset with replacement parkland. Image courtesy USTA
TimesLedger Newspapers

Unlike most parks in the city, Flushing Meadows Corona Park is subject to federal regulations that govern development more stringently than the state, although its oversight would apply to each of the three proposed projects in a different way.

The National Park Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior, became involved with Flushing Meadows in the late 1970s and ’80s under a program called the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The program has provided matching grants to states as part of a national effort to foster growth of public, outdoor recreational facilities and greenspaces and was used to help build a playground and later a baseball field in Flushing Meadows, according to the state Parks Department.

And once a park gets money from Uncle Sam, it is mapped into federal jurisdiction forever.

In the case of Flushing Meadows, almost the entire park was mapped, which means if the Bloomberg administration wants to sell, lease or give away some of that parkland to a non-public entity or change its use, the city will be subject to both state laws and stricter federal rules, according to a state handbook on the subject.

The state Parks Department strongly encourages a policy of no-net-loss of parkland, meaning if parkland is taken away for a project, it should be replaced somewhere else on an acre-for-acre basis. Federal regulations require it.

But oversight by the Park Service would affect three proposed projects in the park — a 0.68 acre expansion of the United States Tennis’ Association’s facility, a 13-acre soccer stadium and a 1.4-million-square-foot mall — if they are carried out.

Representatives from the National Park Service recently conducted a site visit to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and concluded that the land USTA is proposing to absorb into its 42-acre leased area — to accommodate one new stadium, rebuild another and conduct various adjustments to courts and buildings — does not need to be replaced, according to Jack Howard, manager for state and local assistance programs in the northeast region for the Park Service.

And according to city Parks Department testimony at numerous meetings, the USTA does not plan to.

When the tennis center was first built in 1978 and then expanded in 1997, sports facilities were considered public uses, and therefore not subject to the conversion process, according to Howard, who added the center’s status will not change this time around.

The idea that the tennis center is public is being hotly debated in Queens. The USTA contends that its facilities are open to the public year round, except for the month of August when the US Open is played. According to Daniel Zausner, managing director of the National Tennis Center, the facility is in compliance with city, state and federal regulations.

Opposition groups like Save Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the Fairness Coalition of Queens contend that the center’s 8-foot-high fence is designed to deter park-goers from entering and that the rates to play are higher than at other public park facilities in the city.

Geoffrey Croft, of New York City Park Advocates, is vehemently against any parkland being given away, leased or sold, but should the USTA proposal be approved by the city and state, he believes the tennis center should not be exempt from replacing the parkland.

Unlike the tennis center, many park advocacy groups in the borough believe Major League Soccer’s proposed 13-acre soccer stadium on top of the Fountain of Industry will be subject to federal regulations, although opposition to this project is stronger.

Should the MLS plan be approved by the state Legislature, the feds would require that all reasonable alternatives have been considered and rejected on a sound basis, that replacement parkland be of equal or greater value than the lands being taken away, that the recreational usefulness of the lands be reasonably equivalent and that the location of the substitution property be comparable, according to the handbook on park alienation.

MLS has already pledged to replace the parkland, but it remains to be seen if that parkland can pass muster with the Park Service.

The league has eyed several areas, according to a confidential document provided to TimesLedger Newspapers in February, including city-owned land along the Flushing River and in Rego Park. But MLS has recently been floating the idea of using the old Flushing Airport, according to sources in government, which was closed in the ’80s due to extensive flooding issues.

The Fairness Coalition of Queens, a park advocacy group, contends the airport replacement land may not be allowed under Park Service standards.

And in addition to the federal rules set out for parkland replacement, a federal executive order signed by former President Bill Clinton stipulates substitute land cannot adversely affect minority communities.

According to Will Sweeney, a member of the Fairness Coalition, taking parkland away from the Corona, East Elmhurst and Flushing neighborhoods and moving it to College Point may constitute a violation of this order, though the league disagrees.

“MLS is confident that its proposal for replacement parkland will provide meaningful benefits for the community which will be recognized by the City, State and Federal governments,” it said in a statement.

On paper, it seems that the federal oversight would provide extra protections for Flushing Meadows, but Croft said the Park Service did not step in during a controversial parkland replacement process associated with Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

New York City Park Advocates were involved in opposing the development of the stadium in Macombs Dam Park, where Croft contends the Park Service signed off on replacement land that was misrepresented as newly acquired parkland and too far away from the original greenspace, he said.

“When we found out there was going to be a federal component, we mistakenly thought that the feds were going to protect their investment,” he said.

Croft’s group released a report that called into question the city’s calculations of replacement parkland, later approved by the Park Service. But that account was disputed by then-city Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe, according to a report in The New York Times.

The federal regulations of the National Park Service do not apply to the proposed mall as part of the Willets Point Redevelopment.

The area north of Roosevelt Avenue, currently home to Citi Field and its parking lot, is not included in the federally protected portion of the park, meaning the Park Service has no authority to demand parkland replacement should its use change, according to regulations.

The federal maps are not set in stone, though.

In 2011, a judge ruled that the Park Service acted outside of its authority when it de-mapped a warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park that was formerly considered federal parkland, though the structure eventually made it into a broad agreement to develop the park.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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