Monday, April 8, 2013

Will "Willets West" relieve Flushing Meadows's parking curse?

One of the least pleasant things about Flushing Meadows is the sheer amount of parking, as I've helpfully highlighted for you on the Google satellite photo below. Unfortunately the photo doesn't do justice to the enormity (and I do mean enormity) of the situation. Even the smallest of these parking lots, like the one behind the Hall of Science, is depressing. The Citifield lots are just soul-crushingly huge; the Mets organization says there are 8,500 parking spaces available.

This parking doesn't just waste space that would be better used as parkland or even swamp. It ruins everything around it, because as we know from study after study, more parking means more driving. The parking is why it's almost impossible to walk anywhere in the park without some self-righteous asshole in a minivan forcing you off the walkway. It's why the only entrance to the park that's at all pleasant for pedestrians is the number 7 el that carries you over most of the parking and connects you to a boardwalk that crosses high above the rest. It's why even the other entrances near the Botanical Garden and the Hall of Science are still pretty nasty.

Citifield is actually a minor improvement over Shea Stadium in that it's relatively close to 126th Street, making the walk to the bay a little less oppressive. These parking lots are much more of a blight than the auto body shops of Willets Point, which do after all constitute a functioning business district. I think on some level the Wilpon family realize that - and of course they're getting a lot of pushback from the Willets Point business owners.

This probably explains why the latest proposal to develop the area involves putting a giant mall entertainment complex on the site of the parking lot. In theory, this could be a very good thing for the pedestrian environment. It will replace the parking on the entire west side of Citifield with mall fa├žade, which may actually interact with the pedestrian space more than your typical mall. It's hard to tell for sure from the rendering below, but it may also make that stretch of Roosevelt Avenue less of a hellscape.

One thing that's kind of puzzling in all this is that I haven't seen any mention of floodproofing. The entire valley flooded during Hurricane Sandy, like salt marshes do, and will probably flood again every year for the foreseeable future. It should be possible to build this mall in a way that is less vulnerable to flooding, but all the EDC says is that it's "necessitating a significant increase in grade," meaning that they'll dump some rocks or dirt and build on top of them.

The biggest improvement, in theory, could come from reducing the amount of parking in the Flushing River Valley. People are driving less and taking the train more, and new development means a chance to change old travel habits. This would not only make for more pleasant places to walk, but also remove a number of the worst-behaving drivers from the streets.

"In theory," I said. But even the current plans are disappointing. Before a shovel is dug in "Willets West," they call for a twenty acre parking lot to be paved where there are now auto body shops in Willets Point. Willets West itself will contain 2,500 parking spaces. It's not clear that there will be any net reduction in the amount of parking available, and the planners seem to be pushing right ahead with their plans to open new exits off the Van Wyck Expressway.

Another thing that isn't clear is who all is going to drive to this "entertainment complex." Another mall, Atlas Park, has been dying a slow death because of the economic troubles and because it's not near any subway lines. (Yes, I know, it's a "lifestyle center" and not an "entertainment complex," but it's close enough.) This mall will probably survive because it'll be right under a major subway station and near a Long Island Rail Road station, but then who will want to park? (Yes, I know, the LIRR station is only open when there are major sporting events. They'd be stupid not to stop the trains there when the mall opens, which will be another improvement for park users.)

All these deals are laid out behind closed doors (it's not clear whether the rooms are still smoke-filled), but it may be possible to amend this one with public pressure. Save Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is urging people to testify against the plan at the Community Board 7 meeting tomorrow night (Monday, April 8), and on May 13. The project is not on the agenda, but CB7's Buildings and Zoning Committee will be discussing it Thursday night with no public comment, so tomorrow is your chance to frame the issue for them.

I hope that some of you will attend the meeting and speak about the benefits of reducing the parking in the area and elminating the new highway offramps. I hope that some will also talk about more thoughtful, proactive ways to deal with the flooding. Have fun!

1 comment:

Alen said...

as someone who visits the park a few times a year, how are you supposed to get there without driving? especially with kids. on a hot NYC day when the temp/humidity is 95/95.