Yes, Mr. Mayor, the U.S. Open Turns Flushing Meadows Park into a Parking Lot

Sure, the tennis tourney generates revenue for the city, but Queens residents are treated like garbage for three weeks.

Thanks, U.S.T.A.: Private property fills public parkland near the Aquatic Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park during the U.S. Open. Photo: Laura A. Shepard
Thanks, U.S.T.A.: Private property fills public parkland near the Aquatic Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park during the U.S. Open. Photo: Laura A. Shepard

Flushing Meadows Corona Park is once again Flushing Meadows Corona Parking Lot, thanks to the U.S. Open.

Now through the end of the tennis tournament next week, Queens’ most important green space is a riot of large coach buses parking on cycling and pedestrian paths, NYPD vehicles stored everywhere, concrete bollards narrowing key routes, and picnic areas turned into car storage for drivers.

Park and community advocates denounce the imposition annually, but apparently, it’s news to Mayor de Blasio.

“I have to be straight up with you: no one has raised that as a problem to me that I can remember,” the mayor said on Tuesday in response to a question from a reporter about the hypocrisy of supporting car-free Central and Prospect parks yet allowing Flushing Meadows to be overrun with cars for three weeks every summer.

“I think there’s a recognition that the U.S. Open is a tremendously positive event for the city in every way, including economically. So, I think it’s just an apples and oranges situation. It’s very fair to say, ‘Is it worth it?’ I think as a matter of policy, right now we say [it is], but if there is a concern about the number of cars during the U.S. Open, I’m happy to look at it. It’s just the first time I’ve ever heard it raised.”

Flushing Meadows Corona Park is the city’s third largest and the home of cultural institutions and amenities, including the iconic Unisphere, Queens Museum, Queens Theater, Queens Zoo, New York Hall of Science, an aquatic center, a playground for children with disabilities, a boat house and several others.

The park is beloved by Queens residents who frequent the park for soccer, volleyball, cricket, picnics, barbecues, parties and even just to walk, bike, and breathe.

The United States Tennis Association’s occupation adds another layer of injustice to the list of discrepancies between Queens’ largest park and those in other boroughs. Flushing Meadows Corona Park-goers dodge drivers who speed off highway ramps directly into the park, whose paths are crumbling from lack of maintenance. These conditions do not persist in Prospect and Central parks, which have large conservancies advocating for their maintenance. Safe streets advocates in Brooklyn and Manhattan recently celebrated their flagship parks going permanently car-free, but the U.S. Open makes an already bad situation worse for Queens cyclists and pedestrians.

During the Open, a park path is turned into a taxi stand. Photo: Laura A. Shepard
During the Open, a park path is turned into a taxi stand. Photo: Laura A. Shepard

“The message I got was that bicycles are not welcome at the U.S. Open,” said John Choe, who biked from his office at the Flushing Chamber of Commerce to the U.S. Open on Aug. 27. Choe was preparing to staff the Queens Tourism Council’s tourism booth, but found that his normal access point from Flushing, near College Point Boulevard and Avery Avenue, was obstructed by the security forces, as were paths along the stadium.

For local residents, the park provides scarce green space to play and relax. For bike commuters, like Eric Harold, the park is the safest route from North Flushing to his job as an aircraft mechanic at LaGuardia Airport given the limited options for traveling between Eastern and Western Queens.

Harold does not bike to work during the U.S. Open because the park is “full of out-of-state drivers who think it’s a highway, not a park. They think you being there on a bike is wrong. The U.S. Open caters to them and they forget the park is used by city residents.”

The U.S. Open is only a three-week disruption, but for teenagers like Jackson Heights resident Sammy Dib, it comes at the worst time — just as they are enjoying the last bit of summer before school returns.

“It’s a lot harder to bike here,” said Dib, as he and his friends navigated their bikes through the NYPD’s maze of concrete blocks. “It’s like Super Mario. There are a lot of obstacles, people and cars: that’s the thing I fear.” 

Cyclists have to maneuver around the NYPD's concrete blocks. Photo: Laura A. Shepard
Cyclists have to maneuver around the NYPD’s concrete blocks. Photo: Laura A. Shepard

The Open physically occupies swaths of parkland and imposes many “trickle-down impacts” including increased traffic and limited parking for regular activities, according to Jackson Heights resident Donavan Finn. Finn would prefer to avoid the park during the Open, but his child attends camp at the Queens Zoo, and smaller parks in his neighborhood, Travers and Bulova are closed for renovations.

“It’s like an invading army swooped down,” he said. “The facility has a big black gate around it and it towers over the park. For 50 weeks per year, the tennis stadium is this foreboding fortress. For two weeks it kind of explodes. This brazen opulent capitalism is on display for two weeks and then it retreats into itself.”

Or course, Open fans — at least the ones who don’t live in Queens — don’t have a problem with that.

“The U.S. Open is the number one tax generator for the whole city,”  Manhattan resident Maura McGrath wrongly stated, as she waited for a cab to pick her on a bit of parkland. (Broadway and the real estate industries generate far more tax revenue for the city.) “If it takes a little bit of abuse, it’s ok because the hotels, cabbies, and restaurants are getting extra revenue from the tourists visiting the city.”

Some of the security measures hinder park-goers access and ability to navigate, but their conspicuous presence highlights the permeability of the park’s cyclist and pedestrian-dense areas throughout the rest of the year. The park paths lack physical barriers or signage discouraging vehicle operators from mixing with the cyclists and pedestrians, enjoying the park at their leisure.

The Grand Central Parkway bisects the park like a scar and there are only two bridges across it, one near the Queens Theater and one near the tennis stadium and the Queens Museum. As a temporary measure for the Open, the southern bridge has a concrete barrier placed across it to restrict vehicle access, while allowing people to walk or bike freely. Drivers frequently go there during other parts of the year, when the barrier is absent.

The northern bridge is always shared by drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, but most of the year its quiet and car use is sparse. During  the U.S. Open, the bridge, which runs directly from the Tennis Stadium to the Hall of Science, is dangerously congested with turning buses, shuttles, and golf cars. Cyclists are impeded by a concrete block configuration — and pedestrians can cross. But impatient drivers consistently honk aggressively at the non-motorized park users.

Besides inconveniencing and deterring regular riders, the U.S.T.A, which hosts the event, does little to encourage attendees to explore the surrounding community, which is home to a wide variety of ethnic eateries and culture. Indeed, why would drivers seek out other opportunities when U.S.T.A. commandeers green space, such as an area near the aquatic center that is normally used for soccer games and cricket matches, for parking lots?

“I never saw so many cars on public space. It was almost like a car auction,” said Choe, the cyclist. “I just felt like I was in a police state because normally this is a public park for cyclists and pedestrians. Our movement was so restricted, meanwhile cars were driving and parking everywhere. It was a free for all for parking.”

The only bike parking available near the venue is a single overflowing rack adjacent to the Queens Museum parking lot.

New Jersey resident Kevin Eppolito — of course he drove. Photo: Laura A. Shepard
New Jersey resident Kevin Eppolito — of course he drove. Photo: Laura A. Shepard

Each half hour, some attendees ran straight from the tennis compound to the Jitney buses idling in the Queens Museum’s parking lot, each bearing a label of the posh Manhattan hotel to which it was bound: Grand Hyatt, Intercontinental, Weston, etc.

 Near the Queens Theater, a path inside the park, normally just for walking and biking, was commandeered as a taxi stand, where tennis fans waited for green cabs and for-hire-vehicles.

Meanwhile, Kevin Eppolito was parking his car — for free — on the grass near the Aquatic Center. He told Streetsblog that he drove from Bergen County, N.J. to the Open for a simple reason:

“I drove because it’s the easiest,” he said.

Given how the U.S.T.A. treats park users and the park itself during the Open, he’s probably right.

  • iSkyscraper

    Ha. Inwood looked like this every summer weekend for six years coutesy of La Marina until the corrupt city government finally put a stop to it.

  • carl jacobs

    I’m not sure what the point is. Does the author just want to complain? Does she really think that authorities will make this event difficult to access by car?

  • HamTech87

    Thank you for a great piece describing the mess the US Open makes of the park. Invited by a friend to evening matches at Ashe with one of those VIP tickets, I was given special parking on one of those lawns. Assuming everyone around me was heading to the Open, I quickly realized how wrong I was. The walk from that elites-only parking field to the USTA facility was filled with far far far more people heading to the park than to the Open. Lots of extended families: elderly grandparents, parents pushing strollers, little kids on tiny bicycles, etc. coming from beyond my parked car. It was a stark reminder that this park is beloved and heavily-used by those in the surrounding neighborhoods, and my car — and much of the US Open-related crap haphazardly filling park space — was a rude, ugly and perhaps dangerous intrusion.

  • r

    The mayor’s comments on the economic benefits of the US Open are revealing. Parking lots of cars everywhere for a couple of weeks can bring tangible economic benefits in terms of corporate profits and city taxes, I guess, but leaving green space open for people brings all kinds of intangible benefits, economic or otherwise.

    He just doesn’t get it. If you aren’t in a car, you don’t matter to this man.

  • Danny G

    Following the successful reclaiming of space for people in Central and Prospect Parks, perhaps the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Conservancy can help step up and ensure that the U.S. Open doesn’t ruin the park experience for regular parkgoers. There’s tons of events in both Central and Prospect Park; Queens can make it work, too! Here is their website: http://www.fmcpc.org

  • QueensWatcher

    FMCP is my favorite park because of how heavily it is used by Queens diverse tapestry of families. It is the back yard for families with origins that literally span the world. No where else can you go from Tai Chi, to Soccer, to Cricket, to Dragon Boat racing to a Latin BBQ. It is amazing.

    That any part of this park gets taken away to be given over to free parking and taxi stands is a travesty. The 7 train and the LIRR stop immediately adjacent to the Tennis Center. More buses can be scheduled and would have plenty of room to operate if attendees are told when they purchase tickets that there is no parking available except for those with disabilities. Any suggestion that the US Open would lose attendees and revenue if these changes were effected would be absurd. There are so many other ways that transportation to the site can be provided that there simply is no excuse to accommodate private automobile use. Imagine not only how much more parkland would be preserved, but how much easier security and logistics issues would be if private auto use was prohibited. The City should not hesitate to demand a change in US Open practices.

    But the City also must enact changes that prevent private cars from having access to the parks pathways during the rest of the year. Measures as simple as erecting bicycle gates across certain driveways and exits from parking lots could solve most of this issue in the course of an afternoon’s work. That this hasn’t already been done is rather astounding. And the Mayor hiding behind having never heard that this was a problem is a bit too cute. He chose his words carefully. He knew this has been happening, but unlike the neighborhoods surrounding Prospect and Central Parks, which are full of affluent folk not afraid to challenge government authority and demand change, FMCP borders many neighborhoods of immigrant families who have reason not to raise their voices to the government. These families are New Yorkers too and contribute their industry and culture to our great City. They deserve a safe park as much as anyone living across from Central or Prospect parks. The era of letting private entities do what they wish with FMCP because the neighbors don’t raise a fuss needs to end.

  • Val Prism

    Parking is FREE!??!??!? That’s utterly ridiculous and I can’t believe I’m surprised, but I am.

  • Daniel Flanzig

    This attitude is not new. During construction of the new stadium roof, worker and construction vehicles were parked in the bike lanes. For the safety of the workers, speed bumps were placed in the ring road to slow down vehicular traffic around the site. One of these unmarked speed reducers caused a serious injury to an 80 year old cyclist who was forced to ride in the road and over the unmarked hump causing him to crash.

  • JohnBrownForPresident

    I’m not sure what the point of your stupid reply was?

  • John M. Hammer

    Why is parking free? If someone drives to, say, the New York Hall of Science on a weekend with their family, they pay to use the parking lot. Why is it free to drive a car onto and then park on parkland for the Open?

    The speed limit on park roads is posted as 15mph, routinely violated every day (especially Mets game days) with no enforcement. Cars exiting the highway at the bridge between the New York Hall of Science and the tennis stadium often ignore the stop sign at the end of the ramp and speed to the ramp on the other side of the bridge or the other ramp near the Hall’s large paved public parking lot. THERE IS NO NEED FOR ANY OF THESE HIGHWAY RAMPS TO BE OPEN WHEN AN EVENT IS NOT TAKING PLACE and when they are open they need to be staffed by police or traffic-control agents. It’s worse during the Open and as the article points out the driving happens on pedestrian/bike paths AND EVEN LARGE UNPAVED GRASSY AREAS all over the Park. There is vehicle traffic on the small pedestrian/cycle paths year-’round, though, and that is dangerous as well. Barriers need to be in place year-round and enforcement needs to be vigorous to discourage motor vehicle operators from finding ways around the barriers or using motor vehicles that can slip between them as easily as human-powered bicycles or pedestrians.

    There is one bike lane on Park roads. It is only one-way northbound and is only adjacent to a a short stretch of Meridian Road which begins after one passes under the NYHS foot bridge and ends before Meridian Road changes to Shea Road. It is frequently traveled by moving motor vehicles and used as parking by large tractor-trailers.

    The idea that the Open contributes significantly to neighborhood revenues is a joke. Open attendees go to the Open then leave. They don’t explore the Park except maybe quick selfies at the Unisphere, they don’t explore the neighborhood, the only two businesses I can think of that get any extra traffic are the Lemon Ice King of Corona and Parkside Restaurant (and don’t think for a second that the extra traffic gets there other than by car).

    Other events sometimes have similar effects albeit of lesser magnitude and shorter duration. For example, the annual Maker Faire prevents cyclists and pedestrians from passing over the northern footbridge (unless they have a Marker Faire pass) in order to get to the Park exit at 111th Street near 49th Avenue – that can add a lot of distance and time for someone just trying to get through the Park, especially someone who isn’t fully physically abled.

    It’s reasonable to expect that a big event like the Open should have as a consequence a little inconvenience to Park users in the area immediately surrounding their grounds. But the entire Park is disrupted during their annual event and in a way that degrades the infrastructure of the Park and endangers other Park users.

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