Cohen Solicits Community Feedback for Casino Development

Mets owner Steve Cohen (l.) recently held a few community gatherings in Queens to get feedback on his idea to construct a casino in the vicinity of his ballpark, Citi Field. Residents didn’t exactly embrace the idea, but hey, there’s still time.

Steve Cohen knows what he wants—you don’t become a billionaire without that tenacity. And what he wants is a casino not far from Citi Field where his beloved Mets play baseball.

The land where the casino would go is mostly asphalt, used for fairs and other events, but otherwise vacant. Just to gauge what the community thinks, Cohen and his team held a couple of what they call “visionings” in Queens on January 7. Residents packed each session.

The billionaire hedge funder and his team met with more than 500 neighborhood residents at the ballpark and talked about how to turn the adjacent, long dormant Willets Point area into a year-round, all-weather entertainment destination.

Cohen soft-pedaled the casino idea, slipping it in there as “an option.”

“We don’t expect everyone to support all our ideas, but that’s what this discussion is about,” said Cohen, who’s seriously considering bidding for one of three downstate casino licenses that are currently up for grabs.

He also mentioned construction of a park with better access to the World’s Fair Marina and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Some speakers favored an amphitheater and building more community recreational space.

“I’d rather not have a casino,” said Jeannine Williams of Flushing. “I’d like to see more greenspace, a link to the marina. I’m a biker. I want to see something pretty.”

What Cohen wants is a $780 million mixed-use development project: a 25,000-seat stadium for the New York City Football Club, a hotel, and 2,500 units of affordable housing on other land next to Citi Field.

The empty space in Willets Point has served as overflow parking for Citi Field and more since the 1939 World’s Fair. It was also the site of Shea Stadium.

The two “visioning” sessions come as the state’s Gaming Facilities Location Board gets ready to accept casino applications for the downstate licenses, with the bidding set to start at a cool $500 million.

“We believe that Steve Cohen is trying to create a perception of public support for a vague concept of an ‘entertainment venue’ — but that he may later misrepresent that as support for a casino to be built on the parkland,” Bayside community activist Jena Lanzetta said. “He’s soliciting public opinion, without disclosing that his plans impact public parkland, or that his true ambition is a casino. We will expose such deceptions every step of the way.”

“The land surrounding Citi Field is public parkland,” said Richard Hellenbrecht, a founder and officer of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Conservancy. “Yes, it’s paved over and sometimes used as parking spaces for events at Citi Field. But the fact that it’s paved makes it perfectly suitable for the numerous concerts, circuses, festivals, marathons and other popular public events that are held year-round on that very parkland. For Cohen to imply that ‘vacant asphalt’ is all it is, or that it is unused as parkland, is deceptive and misleading — and plain wrong.”

Civic leaders are adept at stopping development. A lawsuit against a 1.4 million square-foot mall in 2017 succeeded in halting the development on the same site.

“Our message to state legislators is our parkland is irreplaceable. It is not for sale. Contrary to what would-be casino owners may say, public parkland is not ‘developable property,’ and it must never be viewed as such,” Queens Civic Congress President Warren Schreiber said. “Why is Flushing Meadows-Corona Park — which this planned ‘entertainment center’ and casino has been proposed in — over decades consistently targeted by commercial schemes when other parks throughout the city are not? Can you imagine a Manhattan developer holding a ‘visioning session’ to consider repurposing the portion of Central Park between 59th and 61st streets? If it’s outrageous to do that in Manhattan, then it’s just as outrageous to do it in Queens.”

Any additional year-round attraction would also generate even more traffic — further congesting roadways such as the Van Wyck Expressway and the Whitestone Expressway, they say, adding that a casino at the location would draw a “bad element” to that part of Queens.

Team Cohen maintains that the area has never been a park “in the truest sense,” and instead it represents a century of waste, mismanagement and neglect.

“For almost 100 years, the area around Citi Field has been 50 acres of empty asphalt and wasted opportunity that isn’t serving the community to its full potential,” a Cohen spokesperson said. “Steve Cohen and his team have been listening to the local community who keep telling us there is more they want from the area around the ballpark. We are currently hosting a series of community visioning sessions to hear directly from those who live and work in the community to help us reimagine the space around Citi Field.”

“Cohen is committed to creating a space that people can come to every day of the year to hang out by the waterfront, enjoy green space, listen to live music, and have plenty of options to eat and drink,” the spokesperson added.

Community Board 7 member John Park, a Flushing resident with a business in Jackson Heights, has attended two recent meetings.

“I agree traffic congestion is a concern in the area, but for 37 years I take the 7 train to work and I see all of the unused space in the parking lot and I think what a waste,” Park said. “I’ve seen their plans and they have green spaces and bike routes, it looks like it would be something cool for the community.”

“I look at the parking lot and I see it’s not meeting its highest and best use, especially when it comes to all that asphalt which leads to runoff and environmental issues,” Costa Constantinides told QNS. He added that he is a big baseball enthusiast who has visited 19 of the ballparks with his son.

“I look around these ballparks and I see what they’ve constructed like the beautiful park they built in Cincinnati and I say to myself that this is what Queens needs and deserves,” he said. “I’ve listened to the Cohens and they’re enthusiastic about talking about the future and that’s what I want to be a part of.”