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Queens Groups Dare to Ask: What if We Built a Park Without a Casino?

"The full 65 acres of public parkland is what our communities deserve, not little scraps and crumbs."

A map of the alternative park plan.

The Phoenix Meadows plan (Queens For All)

The parking lots around Citi Field are officially public parkland—a fact that has become one of the biggest obstacles to billionaire Mets owner Steve Cohen’s plan to build a casino there. The land has never, however, actually been a park.

Now a handful of local groups have a plan to make it one through a rival proposal they’re pushing in hopes of stopping Cohen's $8 billion casino and entertainment complex.

The Phoenix Meadows plan calls for 65 acres of green space, built on top of parking garages that would replace the sprawling lots where Mets fans park their cars.

"It will be used. It will be enjoyed. It will be a very active space that will bring a lot of life to the area," Sarah Ahn of the Flushing Workers Center told Hell Gate. Unlike, she argued, Cohen’s casino.

"It actually sucks up all the economic activity and draws it into the casino, so of course the casino owners make a ton of money," Ahn said. "But it actually blights the areas around it."

Another look at the Phoenix Meadows plan (Queens For All)

Phoenix Meadows was presented at a town hall hosted by State Senator Jessica Ramos last week, where Cohen’s team also outlined a $1 billion community benefits package they are pledging if they get the OK for a gambling operation.

Ramos has a key role in deciding whether Cohen's casino plan lives or dies: For it to move forward, she would have to introduce legislation to remove the City-owned property’s designation as state parkland. In an interview with Hell Gate, Ramos said she is still undecided on whether to do that, but says she’ll make a decision by the end of the state legislative session in June. 

Cohen's team agrees that what the area most needs is park space. It was the top demand in a series of public sessions they held before unveiling their plan for the space. 

Accordingly, he’s dubbed his proposal "Metropolitan Park," and emphasizes the 20 acres of park space it would create—while barely mentioning that its centerpiece would be a casino. 

But opponents say only seven acres of that would be contiguous open space, with the rest made up of small patches of grass scattered throughout the property.

"It’s very clear that the quote unquote park part is very secondary, if you can even say it exists at all," said Zeke Luger of the Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance. "They know how unpopular a casino is. They’re being very deceptive."

The alternative plan envisions thousands of trees, restored wetlands, ponds to soak up storm water, running and biking paths, sports fields, a public pool, a lawn with waterfront views that could host concerts, and space for food vendors.

"The full 65 acres of public parkland is what our communities deserve, not little scraps and crumbs," Luger said.

The land is adjacent to Flushing Meadows Corona Park—and legally speaking, part of the park, a designation made by Robert Moses to secure the space as parking for his World’s Fair. Though there’s already a large park next door, it draws huge crowds from the low-income neighborhoods nearby and has a fraction of the staff and maintenance budget of other marquee city parks. 

"Flushing Meadows Corona Park, when it’s in high use, is packed with people. There’s never enough park space," said Rebecca Pryor, executive director of Guardians of Flushing Bay.

"Giving away parkland is a big deal. And this will set a huge precedent."

What the Phoenix Meadows proposal doesn’t have is an established source of funding, or even an estimate of how much it would cost. Organizers hope to leverage federal green infrastructure money, along with state and city funding.

Cohen, on the other hand, says that’s a key selling point of his own plan: the billions to actually get it done.

"Do you want to leave this as 50 acres of asphalt for the next 81 years?" Cohen’s chief of staff, Michael "Sully" Sullivan, said at the town hall. "Or do you want to try to build something great for all?"

Steve Cohen's "Metropolitan Park," complete with "Gaming Facility" (Metropolitan Park)

Cohen's promising to spend $480 million to rebuild the 7 train station and make it wheelchair and stroller accessible, and another $320 million on green space, athletic fields, and playgrounds. The casino will come with a "Taste of Queens" food hall, a music venue on the scale of Radio City, a rooftop community garden, and 15,000 union jobs. The developers also plan to kick in $25 million for neighborhood projects including a new health clinic and mental health and addiction services, and $163 million for local priorities to be named later.

There’s a catch, however: If Cohen, who has an estimated net worth of $14 billion, doesn't get a casino, none of it will happen.

"It’s extraordinarily expensive," Sullivan told the crowd, citing the cost of elevating the land before any project can be built because it is located in a flood plain. 

"I've been very transparent that without the gaming license, without that economic engine, without that ability to draw people to the area year round, the project isn’t viable," he said. "Not only is it not economically viable, it’s not even close."

Pryor said she doesn’t buy the casino-or-nothing framing. "I think that's a bluff," she said. 

Ramos said she appreciated hearing an alternative plan, especially its emphasis on environmental sustainability in an area where heavy rain often causes flooding and sewage overflow into Flushing Bay. 

"That has to be one of our main concerns. We’re still dealing with climate change," she told Hell Gate. 

Ramos was critical of Cohen's operation—accusing them of "misinformation" and "disingenuous outreach" for marketing that omits references to a casino—but said she is still weighing her concerns against the need for economic development.

Her counterpart in the state Assembly, Jeffrion Aubry, has already introduced a bill to alienate the parkland and supports the casino plan. The Citi Field bid is one of nearly a dozen proposals vying for three downstate casino licenses; the state Gaming Commission will pick the winners, likely some time in 2025.

"Having a casino in our community is a real concern. There are many things that come along with a casino, and Steve Cohen and Hard Rock would stand to make billions and billions every year off of our community," Ramos said.

"The other side of this issue, in the spirit of transparency, is that there are many people in the neighborhoods surrounding Citi Field who have longed for economic development in that area for a very long time," Ramos continued. "Moneyed interests can and will take advantage of our desperation, so these are conversations that I need to keep having, because I do hear them. I do understand that they don’t want that particular area to continue to be a desert of sorts."

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