Queens Casino Debates Return: Will Jessica Ramos Be the Immovable Object to Steve Cohen’s Unstoppable Force?
Both Ramos and Cohen ultimately have only one weapon, and it’s the power to scuttle the other’s plans.
1:09 PM EST on November 28, 2023
The last time Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos held a town hall on Mets owner Steve Cohen's plans to build a casino on the Citi Field parking lots, she emphatically stuck a fork in the project by putting on hold a required parkland alienation bill in the legislature. Following that May 19 gathering, Ramos declared that she would put the kibosh on any casino plans until a "community conversation" could be held to find a way to use the parking lots, which sit on City-owned parkland, to benefit local residents, and not just by providing them a place to gamble away their paychecks.
"If you look at everybody who spoke at the town hall, about two-thirds expressed not wanting a casino," while the rest were "yearning for economic development," Ramos told Hell Gate shortly after the May event. She called both "very valid concerns," and while threading that needle could be difficult—especially given Cohen's long-term lease on the parking lots—she set out in search of an approach that could provide everyone with something they wanted.
After a largely quiet summer and fall, the next phase of the community conversation finally arrived last night at a gym in Corona, Queens. Whereas Cohen's plans were still officially unconfirmed back in the spring, this time around, the roughly 200 people in attendance had a marginally more concrete proposal to chew on: Earlier this month, the Mets owner officially took the wraps off his plan, now a parks-and-solar-panels-and-parking-garages-and-oh-yes-a-casino project dubbed "Metropolitan Park."
The project's website is notably free of the renderings of happy clip art people common to most development plans, instead settling for a bird's-eye view map that name-checked many of the neighborhood-friendly items raised in the "visioning sessions" Cohen held last winter—a live music venue, a "Queens food hall"—while showing mostly green space and solar panels, with little detail about what sort of commerce would be taking place beneath them.
After some brief crowd work from Ramos ("I know all the carpenters want to sit together, but that may not be possible…How was everybody's Thanksgiving? I made waffles out of stuffing the next day!") she laid out the ground rules for the night’s event. "We are going to roll up our sleeves today," said the senator, and make sure "everybody understands what it would mean to build this or what it would mean for us not to build this." To that end, two balloons had been set up at opposite ends of the gym. Those who wanted to craft a potential community benefits agreement to attach to Cohen's plan were directed to sit by the pineapple balloon; those who wanted to work on an alternative plan, perhaps achieved by creating a community land trust, would sit by the flamingo balloon.
The bulk of the crowd immediately went pineapple. Many of these attendees were wearing union jackets, or green T-shirts with Cohen's metropolitanpark.com website printed on the back, credited to something called the "Coalition for Queens Advancement." Gathered around folding chairs, they sat and discussed what they hoped to see in a community benefits deal, though there appeared to be a lot more free-form kvetching and less filling out of index cards than Ramos's self-proclaimed "exercise in community governance" presumably envisioned.
A man in a Transport Workers Union jacket gave his name as Angelo; he immediately volunteered that he was from Brooklyn, but noted the rest of the TWU comrades at his table were Queens locals. Their main concern, he said, was getting commitments from Cohen and his fellow developers that union labor will be used at the casino, hotel, and convention space that are part of Metropolitan Park.
"There's too much focus being put on a casino," said Angelo. "What about everything that goes along with that casino: the janitorial staff, the security staff, all the other jobs not directly related to gaming? Those are the things that we as an organization would like to see before [Ramos] signs this agreement."
Elna Tullock, a Queens resident who was one of the first to arrive at the town hall, said she's for "anything that will improve the community." She said she had no particular requests for a community benefits agreement, despite being seated on the pineapple side: "As long as they follow through and nobody is cheated, it’s a win-win."
Over on Team Flamingo, meanwhile, there was much grumbling about the preponderance of pineapples, especially after the previous town hall had seen more turnout by local residents who leaned anti-casino.
"We have one strong position, which is absolutely no casino," emphasized Huanjie Li, part of a group in attendance from the Flushing-based MinKwon Center for Community Action. Her organization, she added, opposes a community benefits agreement (which would come with a casino), and also doesn't want to see the land alienated for any kind of alternative development (lest that eventually leave room for a casino). "I feel like people get too focused: 'What do I want? What do you want?' I don't want to fall into that trap."
At another flamingo table, Erin Toomey of Jackson Heights sat with two friends looking gloomy about the whole proceeding. "I didn't come prepared with an alternative plan," she said, beyond not wanting to see a development that she believes would take money out of surrounding neighborhoods and put it in a developer's pocket. "This is nice," she said as she waved a leaflet touting a proposal from a group called Flushing for Equitable Development and Urban Planning touting its Phoenix Meadows Plan, which would turn 100 percent of the stadium parking lots into green space. "I saw it five minutes ago. It's nicer than an asphalt parking lot."
Following the breakout sessions, assorted individuals took the mic to present their takeaways, most of which they'd arrived with. Many flamingos talked up Phoenix Meadows, with its huge rain garden to prevent flooding and little league field; maybe a hospital would be nice as well. The pineapples spoke of improvements to trains and bike lanes, a hospitality training center, and "solar panels so it doesn't use oil or stuff that is bad" (this last from one of the youngest attendees). The alternating voices echoed wildly in the cavernous gym, blurring together as much of the crowd slowly filed out in search of dinner.
One of the problems of the split paths set up by the town hall—accept Cohen's casino plan and attach a community benefits agreement, or repurpose the site for an alternative project like Phoenix Meadows—is that each comes with major pitfalls. Back in the spring, Ramos was quick to note that she "would never want my community to become another Barclays situation, where it's been 10 years and nobody's complied with that community benefits agreement," something that’s been pretty much par for the course for the City's CBAs. The idea of a community land trust, meanwhile, runs up against Cohen's $10/year, 99-year lease on the parking lots, signed in 2006 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which effectively prohibits the City from doing anything without Mets ownership's approval until the year 2105.
Outside the town hall, other supporters of Phoenix Meadows rallied in protest of the evening's entire enterprise. "We attended Senator Ramos's last town hall, and what we saw was extremely horrifying," said Joseph Jung, an organizer with the Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance, a group that formed in 2020 to oppose the luxury housing projects that are springing up in that neighborhood across Flushing Creek to the stadium's east. "She was just giving verbatim Steve Cohen's group, New Green Willets' presentation. And told us, either we get this casino project, or we don't get anything at all." FADA, he said, was choosing not to participate in the town hall at all, so as not to legitimize a process to "socialize the community into accepting a casino just by trying to pass a community benefits agreement that can’t be enforced anyway."
Ramos, who spent the tail end of the meeting doing her best Phil Donahue, gripping a wireless mic and running from one side of the gym to the other, clearly has no love for the casino: Part of her instructions to participants was to give feedback on what they'd like to see along with or in place of "a casino that often extracts wealth and that could become obsolete now that all the gambling is happening on people's phones." But she also said, "We do not have the option of keeping the asphalt." Ramos wants something to happen there, just not necessarily the same as what Cohen and his business partners have envisioned. (Cohen has dismissed any talk of a casino-less development, calling it "economically not feasible.")
Ramos and her staff said they're planning to hold one more town hall sometime in the new year. Beyond that, she was noncommittal, and said she would continue to talk. (The casino approval process is expected to drag into late 2024 at least, if not 2025.) Eventually, it seems unavoidable that she will have to sit down with Cohen to talk about what to do next: agree to a casino with some kind of community benefits, find another design that the Mets owner can live with, or learn to live with the asphalt.
"I'm going to continue to meet with everybody who asks for a meeting," Cohen said during a press huddle while everyone else chose their balloons. "This is going to be an ongoing conversation." In the end, though, this looks like it will inevitably come down not to discussion but to hardball. Both Ramos and Cohen ultimately have only one weapon, and it's the power to scuttle the other's plans and leave the parking lots in place. And the only thing that will matter then will be which one is the first to blink.
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