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USTA land deal panned by critics

A grassy area currently leased to the United States Tennis Association will be returned to the city under a new agreement. Photo by Joe Anuta
TimesLedger Newspapers

The United States Tennis Association trumpeted a pledge this week to replace double the parkland it wants to take as part of its expansion, but critics called the swap disingenuous since the land is already used by the public.

The USTA released a joint statement Tuesday with the city Parks Department and elected officials praising the deal to replace roughly 1.5 acres of parkland, which has long been a sticking point with the community. The association is seeking approvals to expand its 42-acre lease in Flushing Meadows Corona Park by taking an additional 0.68 acres in a process called alienation, but has run into heavy opposition from several activist groups.

“At the outset of the project, the city suggested that park improvements would result in a more meaningful degree of public benefit than an in-kind replacement for the 0.68 acres that is proposed for alienation,” said Daniel Zausner, chief operating officer of the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

But he added that after consulting with the city Parks Department and the public all parties decided a parkland swap would be appropriate.

The swap includes five outdoor tennis courts totaling 0.81 acres to the east of the walkway leading to the No. 7 train stop. These courts are maintained by the USTA and open to the public year-round, except during the US Open — an arrangement that will not change after the USTA relinquishes the land from its lease, the association said.

The swap also includes 0.75 acres of what the USTA calls “passive open space.” The space consists of small parcels of tree-lined grass outside the fences of the tennis courts. The grassy patches contain some small benches and bleachers that look out onto the courts. The space is already open to the public.

Under the deal the USTA’s footprint in the park will technically be less than it is now should the proposal pass the city Planning Commission and the City Council, but it still did not sit well with activists.

“This means nothing. It means absolutely zero will change,” said Geoffrey Croft, of New York City Park Advocates and Save Flushing Meadows Corona Park. “But the elected officials will use it as cover to support the project.”

City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) has long called on the USTA to replace parkland and said in the joint announcement Tuesday the loss of “even an inch would be felt by the working people who depend on Flushing Meadows Corona Park.” Ferreras characterized the swap as a step in the right direction.

Parks Commissioner Veronica White said the swap will “provide a benefit to park visitors,” and Borough President Helen Marshall said the arrangement “shows just how much we value every acre of parkland here in Queens.”

But a member of the Fairness Coalition had trouble identifying what exactly the benefit will be since the swap appears to have taken place on paper only.

“The community doesn’t benefit at all by any expansion of park space. It is a lose-lose proposition for us in a lot of ways,” said Donovan Finn. “USTA gets what they want without spending a dime, we still lose the land and all the politicians’ demands have now been neutered buy this bureaucratic maneuvering.”

Community boards affected by the plan have also called on the USTA to create a capital improvement fund and an annual maintenance fund to keep up the park. It was not clear whether the swap was done in lieu of this proposal.

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

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