Sunday, April 7, 2013

Helen Marshall's Support In Upcoming USTA Expansion Vote Obvious - Defends Her Park Legacy

Danny Zausner, USTA's Chief Operating Officer giving the presentation the USTA refuses to make publicly available online despite repeated requests. He was once again reminded that the USTA could build their two stadiums on its existing footprint without encroaching further on public parkland.  (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advoctes) click on images to enlarge


By Geoffrey Croft

If there were any doubts on how Borough President Helen Marshall was going to vote regarding the USTA expansion plan they were certainly put to rest at the land use hearing she held as part of the ULURP process on Thursday.

Throughout the hearing, the Borough President repeatedly complimented the USTA and their supporters and consistently interrupted speakers who criticized her, the USTA or the process itself. She also defended her legacy on park related issues during her twelve year tenure.

Ironically proof of at least part of this legacy was right outside the window.  Attendees looking out of the second story hearing room could easily see the area where more than two dozen Cherry trees were needlessly destroyed to make room for a new $ 17 million dollar atrium Ms. Marshall spearheaded using tax payer funds.   

When reminded that there were two other commercial projects being proposed for Flushing Meadows-Corona Park coming right after the USTA - the massive Willets Point West mall & a Major League Soccer Stadium -  Helen Marshall (above) replied, "I hope not." 

Responding to criticism that she has given the park away to private businesses she said, 
"We haven't given it away we've enhanced it." 

Joshua Laird, the Assistant Commissioner for Planning and Parklands at the Parks Department began the hearing by expressing the agency's strong support for the USTA's taking of additional parkland to expand the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

USTA's Chief Operating Officer Danny Zausner followed with a powerpoint presentation which the USTA still refuses to make available on-line despite repeated requests. 
The USTA has tweaked the presentation over the past months in response to various weaknesses and criticism that have been raised at public meetings.

As they have done throughout the process, the USTA's presentation contained a number of half-truths and misinformation that, due to the extremely limited structure of the public review process, the public is never really given the opportunity to adequately address.

After the hour-long presentation by the USTA, the public participation portion of the meeting began.

As has been the case during all the previous hearings not a single person testified in favor of the expansion that was affiliated with the organization in some way. 

The USTA's public hearing strategy has revolved around parading out supportive testimonials from businesses with ties to the USTA and from people benefiting from programs offered on their 42-acre park campus they lease from the Parks Department. Ironically, programs at the USTA tennis center that are mostly offered by other providers such as the NY Junior Tennis League.  

The tennis giant and the Borough President were reminded once again that none of this testimony was particularly relevant because the issue being considered has nothing to do with removing the USTA from the premises but whether or not they should be allowed to expand further into Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

The Borough President had to be reminded that this was not supposed to be a popularity contest involving the USTA but a land use hearing regarding whether  or not to allow more parkland to be used for a private corporation's benefit. 

It is implied that the "wonderful" public programs touted would go away if the USTA were not permitted to expand, and they would increase if the project were approved.  (This time around the USTA has not promised it would never come back to the city and ask for even more parkland in the future as they have done in the past). 

However when USTA's Danny Zausner was asked at a February 18th Community Board 7 meeting if they had planned on increasing funding for programming in the New York area as a result of the additional $ 4-5 million dollars they expect in new revenue as a result of the expansion, he clearly in the negative: 

"In addition to what we are already funding in the New York area - on an annual basis? No," Mr. Zausner responded.

Critics of the expansion took exception to a non-profit Alliance fund some people are advocating be established. It was pointed out that it was the city’s legal responsibility to properly fund our public parks not private businesses.  

Agreeing to a deal that puts money into a park fund in exchange for a yes vote which would allow the USTA to expand will only encourage more businesses try and take our public parkland. It would also allow the very people whose job it is to properly fund and protect our public spaces off the hook. 

There is a huge difference between receiving philanthropic contributions from civic minded people seeking nothing in return and establishing a fund explicitly created for extracting money from businesses exploiting the park.  

It is also the job of our elected officials to protect our public park lands NOT give them away to corporations. 

For critics of the expansion there was little doubt what side of the fence Helen Marshall was on before Thursday's hearing.

Queens resident Ben Haber testifying on Thursday. "If you and a group of politicians who for years have not only failed to address the park's needs with tax dollars but have alienated it piece by piece, support the USTA's application, it comes as no surprise," said Ben Haber.  

"I would ask you to reject the USTA application, but your history with FMCP makes it clear it would be an exercise in futility," began long-time Queens resident Ben Haber.

"You will support the current application notwithstanding any opposition you hear," he stated.

He reminded the public of her support to build a Grand Prix race track in the park in the 1980's,  a 70,000-seat stadium for the NY Jets, and the previous taking of 21 acres for the USTA  expanstion in the 1990s.

He turned his attention to the upcoming Willets Point West project, the mega-mall the Related Companies proposes to build in conjunction with Sterling Equities in the park next to Citi-Feild, and a proposed Major League Soccer Stadium proposed for another area of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. 

"I have not supported that," Ms. Marshall interrupting. "I have to see what they're talking about." 

"There is nothing to talk about,  they don't belong in the park," Mr. Haber shot back.

"You will support it. Let me finish please.

You will support a Major League Soccer stadium in the park and a shopping mall on the Mets parking lots which are on parkland and which will destroy the small businesses," he said commenting on the two other proposals. 

He also called her out for her lack of funding the park other than for structures. "The record is clear, practically everything you gave had nothing to do with the passive use urban parks are all about," he said. 

The hearing's only laugh came at the conclusion of 85-year-old Ben Haber's biting testimony.

"If I'm wrong about anything I said here today I apologize."

Helen Marshall ignored the criticism and said the borough president's office had continuously enhanced the park during her tenure as well as Claire Shulman's, who was in that office from the suicide of former BP Donald Manes in 1986 until 2001.

"You know I wonder if I didn't do anything for the parks and my predecessor didn't do anything for the parks, I would be at that microphone,” she said, defending her record.

"We don't want a barren park we want a park that's meaningful and brings us wonderful things - children getting tennis at this age, that's wonderful."

She ignored the most important point: that it is the City's job to provide recreational opportunities for children, the exorbitant prices to play at the facility, and that giving away parkland to a private developer in exchange for an extremely limited amount of access to our pubic parkland is not sound policy.

She also completely dismissed the impacts of the 42 acres of parkland that the USTA has already been allowed to seize.

"There is still plenty of room for people to walk, to spread their blankets, all of that is still preserved. But now we have wonderful things that we would have to go to other boroughs or other parts of the city to find.  So I think we deserve credit for it. Thank you," Ms. Marshall said to applause from supporters of the USTA expansion, including more than a dozen USTA employees and paid consultants such as representatives from Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, Rubenstein Associates, and AKRF. 

Robert LoScalzo held up photographs taken during the 2012 U.S. Open showing two lanes of traffic on Roosevelt Avenue cordoned off – one in each direction – exclusively to accommodate the drop-off and pick-up of tennis patrons.

"This situation is already very bad," he said while also mentioning the USTA's plan hopes to attract another 80,000 people to the annual event. He also reminded the public that the conditions on Roosevelt is directly adjacent to the enormous 1.4 million sq. ft.  mall being proposed for the Citi-Field parking lot.

Queens resident Robert LoScalzo reminded the audience that the USTA "is perfectly capable of renovating its facilities while keeping within its present footprint, and NOT expanding onto even more parkland," he said.

He pointed out the project's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that contained two options that would prevent further encroachment into the parkland, while allowing the USTA to build their two stadiums.   

"So if you're in favor of creating construction and trade jobs,  those two reasonable options would absolutely do so,  and would also satisfy USTA's desire for new,  state-of-the-art facilities – without further encroaching into Flushing Meadows Corona Park," he said.
"USTA's self-serving conclusion is that rebuilding within its current footprint is not acceptable to USTA." 

The information in the USTA's EIS directly contradicts Danny Zausner testimony from February 18 when he stated, “We can't physically replace these two stadium without taking this asphalt strip and turning it into a landscape buffer." 

Mr.  LoScalzo pointed out the USTA wants more parkland for two main reasons: "to increase the width of a walkway inside the tennis center, to provide a more luxurious experience for tennis people during just two weeks of the U.S. Open," 

In addition to increasing attendance at the U.S. Open by 10,000 people daily.
"But," he asked, "who says that we want 10,000 more people there, or that it's even reasonable to put them there?"  

He pointed out that a large number of these people would be arriving by car, taxi or limousine.   

Holding up photographs as evidence he says were taken during last year's US Open, Mr. LoScalzo pointed out the traffic problems that already exist without the 80,000 additional attendees the USTA anticipates.

"This situation is already very bad – but USTA wants to attract another 10,000 people here per day? By the way, these conditions on Roosevelt are right next to the proposed site of the Mets mall in the Citi Field parking lot – which would be the largest mall in New York City," he said.

"How can you reconcile commandeering Roosevelt Avenue like this, with the simultaneous traffic to be generated by a huge mall, right here?

The prestige of the U.S. Open is already well established. It does not depend on whether 10, 000 more people attend it.This USTA proposal, like the two others that impinge on our park,  are efforts to close deals on parkland while the Bloomberg administration is still around to sign the papers. Please do right by the people of Queens: Tell USTA to renovate within its existing space, and reject its self-serving application to expand its size and its impacts."

Paul Graziano, an urban planner and community activist who is running for City Council in the 19th District noted that almost every person opposing the expansion were regular Queens residents who care about their borough's parkland, whether it was .68 or 1,000 acres that were in question of being compromised. Graziano also likened the giving away of public parkland to the growing bribery corruption scandal that has occurred during the past week which ensnared his opponent in the Council race, Councilmember Dan Halloran.  

"It's clear that these situations have much in common," Graziano stated. "I've worked in over 50 municipalities in the New York City metropolitan area and I've never seen protected parkland being given away anywhere else. Whether it's legal or illegal, it brings up the question as to whether this is the right thing to do. It's the government's job to protect our public interest, not give it away to corporate interests."

The expansion would utilize an additional acre of public parkland,  remove more than 400 trees,  bring in an additional 80,000 people, and increase traffic in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park which is already severely impacted by the USTA.

Various neighborhood residents who serve on community boards, and civic group representatives also spoke out against the expansion including Phil Konigberg, Ed Westley, Rich Hellenbrecht, president of Queens Civic Congress, and Jon Torodash. 

It is protocol at public hearings to allow elected officials and or their representatives the courtesy of presenting testimony before the general public.

The Borough President refused to allow State Senator Tony Avella's representative the opportunity to speak. Senator Avella has been the only elected official to consistently oppose the USTA expansion - as well as the other proposed projects in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park - and giveaway of public parkland. After waiting more than two hours, Deputy Legislative Council Dawa Jung handed over the Senator's written testimony and left.

To add insult to injury the Senator's testimony was not publicly read into the record at the hearing. 

Senator Avella fired off a letter to Marshall seeking an apology from Borough President Marshall, which, to date, has not been given by her office.

"I find it disgraceful that your office did not follow this common protocol and did not allow her the opportunity to properly represent me, " the Senator wrote. 

Mr. Avella also questioned the motive:

"Is it because I oppose the application," he asked.

The Borough President will be voting on the USTA expansion issue tomorrow,  Monday, April 8th.

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