As most of the 500-plus inside the Queens Theater cheered for a new soccer team to play just yards away, a small crowd gathered in the lobby with signs that contrasted the ones ushers offered when walking in.
A town hall meeting on Tuesday, December 3 hosted by Major League Soccer (MLS) to inform the community of its plans to build a 25,000 seat stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park over what is currently the Fountain of Planets.
“Our goal is to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world by 2022,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “This team and this stadium will help us achieve that. You can’t be a dominate soccer league without having a dominate team in the largest, and most important city in the world.”
The theater itself was filled mostly with soccer supporters who wanted to see MLS’ potential 20th team call Queens its home. In between translations or speakers, cheers could be heard such as “build it, baby.”
A highlight of Garber’s presentation was the support to local small businesses surrounding the park and fuel the already bulging soccer culture that’s developed in the borough.
More than 700 businesses had signed letters of support of the stadium, Garber said. He also likened a tradition by fans of the Seattle Sounders FC, who will often march to the stadium and stop at local businesses on the way.
The league has set out to speak to communities throughout the borough — particularly those that surround the park — including a presentation to the Queens Borough Board the night before. The questions asked by the audience focused on getting jobs at the arena, who would own the new team and where the displaced parkland would go.
State Senator Jose Peralta voiced his support for the project and promised to keep the league accountable for the promises attached to the stadium.
“Obviously, there’s a lot to like about MLS’ proposal,” he said. “But as I have said to them before, and I will say to MLS again tonight, we’re going to hold your feet to the fire.” But while he promised to ensure the lost parkland would be replaced, “let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot. Let’s recognize a good deal for what it is and work together to ensure that all the parties hold up their end of the agreement.”
Those waiting in the lobby, however, thought any kind of deal is wrong and replaced greenspace would never redeem that which is lost. The meeting, some added, was more of a rally for bringing pro soccer to Queens instead of an actual town hall.
“This is a promotional event for Major League Soccer,” said Donovan Finn, a member of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance. “I guess they can call it whatever they want, but it’s not the transparent process that Commissioner Garber was talking about during his presentation.”
Only about two of the projected 10 to 13 acres eaten up in the project would be from grassy areas in the park, according to MLS officials. The rest, mainly concrete walkways and the fountain itself, has been considered a closed off and under used part of the borough’s largest park.
NYC Park Advocates President Geoffrey Croft doesn’t think the designated site is a boondock patch of park, and alleged the league was making claims to sway public interest toward the stadium.
Several attendees against the stadium alleged organizers opted to have them sit in another room with the meeting broadcasted into the it. Finn, who he arrived at 7 p.m. just as the meeting was starting, said he was told that since he did not have a reserved seat, he would have to sit in the lower room and watch from there.
“I came in right at 7 o’clock and I was asked if I had a reserved seat,” she said. “And I said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ then they said, ‘You’re in the basement.’”
This was not the case, however, and the league had opened the room to everyone, said MLS spokesperson Risa Heller. The league had widely advertised the meeting in the two weeks leading up, she said, and tried to get the word out through mass and social media.
“Any suggestion that our town hall wasn’t open to the public is sour grapes,” she said. “This was a come one, come all event.”