Thursday, February 14, 2013

What is the best use for the Flushing River valley?

I've lost count of all the proposals to build things in the Queens Valley. Here's a map from the Wall Street Journal:

In addition to the plans to build on Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, there are also the various proposals for the auto body district in Willets Point, which I covered last year and the year before.

There are several developers and pressure groups (the Mets, Major League Soccer, the United States Tennis Association, the Related Group) in favor of the plan, and a number of groups opposed (Willets Point United, the Fairness Coalition of Queens). Right away, I'm skeptical about the plans, especially the "build lots more parking" parts.

But I'd like to step back a little bit and ask: if we had all the money and power in the world, what would we most like to see there? What use would fit our goals (see up top) best? And what is it already being used for?

The first thing to think about is the valley's natural role as a swamp in absorbing storm surge. A column by Jim Dwyer in the Times and a thorough op-ed by biologist Jason Munshi-South in the Daily News explaining exactly how this works, and how well it worked during Hurricane Sandy. Most urbanists think of Curitiba as a pioneer in "Bus Rapid Transit," but they also set aside swampland as seasonal parks for flood control.

There is a significant amount of swampland along the Flushing River and its tributaries, including the upper part of the river near Willow Lake and the former Flushing Airport. But north of Meadow Lake the river enters a culvert, emerging on the other side of the Fountain of the Planets into a post-industrial wasteland.

As Scott Fitzgerald famously described it, the "Valley of Ashes" was for many years used as a dump for an on-site garbage incinerator. In 1936 Bob Moses bulldozed the ashes and other trash over to the edges of the valley to form the base of the Grand Central Parkway, and erected viaducts to carry the Whitestone Expressway across from Flushing. In 1961 he built the Van Wyck Expressway on the east side of the valley.

The surrounding neighborhoods rely on Flushing Meadows for recreational space. It also hosts cultural centers for the entire borough: the Queens Museum of Art, the Queens Zoo, the Queens Botanical Garden. And of course there are the sports facilities: Citifield, the tennis complex, the skating rink, the boathouse, the "pitch and putt" golf center, and their attendant parking nastiness.

Then there is the transit infrastructure. E, F and R trains are stored in the Jamaica Yard at the southern end of the valley. The #7 train crosses the valley to the north over Roosevelt Avenue, and these trains are stored in the Corona Yard south of the station. Between the station and the yard is the Corona Bus Depot.

But there's one more issue: pedestrians. During the day, it's a relatively pleasant walk from, say, the Lemon Ice King of Corona to the Flushing Library, if you cross the Grand Central on one of the two mostly-pedestrian bridges and go under the Van Wyck at the Avenue of Discovery. But walking into the park from anywhere else ranges from fairly unpleasant to borderline suicidal, and walking around it takes hours. In contrast, Central Park, Prospect Park and Van Cortlandt Park have edges and crossings that are much more humane and welcoming.

The Bloomberg administration and the developers are right that we need more housing that's conveniently located to jobs in Manhattan, and where else but Queens? Similarly, with all the soccer fans in Queens (when the World Cup was on, no matter who was playing you could find at least one restaurant from that country where the fans were watching, and dozens in the case of Ireland, Colombia and Mexico), it makes a lot of sense to have a soccer stadium. And I'm on record as being in favor of a casino located near the large population of gamblers. On the other hand, I simply haven't looked at the area and said to myself, "You know what we need? Another shopping mall." But in all these cases, why this part of Queens?

Finally, I don't believe we need lots of parking for every possible park use even in Fresno, much less Queens.

All right, well this is a good place to stop. So I'm not going to answer the question in this post. Maybe later I'll work towards an answer. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments and on Twitter.


BBnet3000 said...

I like the idea of having a soccer stadium in Queens, particularly near the huge population of potential fans in Jackson Heights/Elmhurst/Corona.

That said, its in the only part of Flushing Meadows that is actually a good park. Im going to go on record here as saying that the southern part of the park sucks and is useless. Its a barren wasteland, the paths are falling apart, and its hemmed in by freeways. You cant even see the lake from the path for the most part. Getting there from the E train was very unfun. If you dont get the crossing location exactly right (I was there in the Apple Maps era, which didnt show pedestrian crossings) you get to walk down an awful frontage road (Ill take Horace Harding past LeFrak City over it any day).

Personally, I would site the stadium where Shea Stadium was, in the parking lot of Citi Field. But we all know why that wouldnt end up happening, despite the stadium being next to the subway and LIRR.

Ben Fried said...

I was about to make the same suggestion as BBNet -- if a soccer stadium is such a great idea, build it on the Citi Field parking lot.

It seems like there is a real groundswell of opposition to the stadium-in-the-park plan, and re-siting it on the parking lot could be the counterproposal that channels all that energy.

capt subway said...

Well I've always been an ardent proponent of urban farming. I believe Jane Jacobs - whose picture is included with this post - was too. How about setting aside some of the park for farming? Mom-n-pop farming to be sure. I imagine the low lying swampy parts would be ideal for rice.

Jack Reylan said...
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