The New York Islanders, the metropolitan areas vagabond hockey team, is possibly looking at a 2019 departure from Barclays Center. For anyone (anyone?) who has seen a game there, that’s not surprising. Games are sparsely attended, a good portion of the views are obstructed, and ownership has done as little as possible to alert Brooklyn residents that there’s an alternative to seeing the Nets at Barclays. Simply put, the marriage was not meant to last.
So what now? Since at least the summer, there’s been grumblings about the Islanders moving to New York City’s other borough on Long Island, and adding even more of a stadium glut to the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park area. As long as legal battles have simmered over Willets Point, which sits beside Citi Field, sports ownership groups have speculated over ways to cram another arena into an area that already has a Major League Baseball stadium, the preeminent (and newly expanded) tennis center in the country, and an olympic-level aquatics center. A few years ago, pols tried to cram through a Major League Soccer stadium in the heart of the park itself, only to see the soccer-loving communities that surround the park unify against it. The appetite for an arena is simply not there. And yet it keeps being brought back up.
The latest politician to get on board with a Queens hockey arena is Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who said during her state of the borough last week she’d like to see a hockey arena or soccer team on the Willets Point site. As my colleague Neil deMause points out, Katz has zilch power to move forward with that idea, so it’s more of a gesture than anything substantive. On top of that, Willets Point itself, while still being cleared auto shop by auto shop by the city in a torturous process that has dragged on forever, has to be decontaminated before anything can be built on the land. Right now, the current plan, spearheaded by the Mets ownership, is to put a parking lot on it, and replace the Mets current parking lot with a mall. That plan has been met with lawsuit after lawsuit over the alienation of parkland, and now the case is stalled in state court, with a possible resolution one way or another coming as soon as this spring.
So to throw a hockey arena into the mix seems like pure fantasy. Or is it? The battle over the Mets parking lot is over whether the parkland the parking lot currently sits on could be turned into a mall without violating the “public trust doctrine,” which limits uses of parkland and makes any development contingent on approval from the state. Shea Stadium used to sit directly on the land where the parking lot now resides, so there might not be a violation of the doctrine if a hockey arena were to be built there. And while that would surely also result in legal action as well, it certainly serves more a public and park-like function than a shopping mall. The Mets (and Islanders) parking lot could still head for Willets Point, where remediation (and future flooding) makes the development of a neighborhood challenging.
But that doesn’t mean it should happen. Flushing Meadows Park is already overburdened by sports facilities, and a soccer stadium or hockey rink is a poor use of badly needed public space. If the Willets West mall get approved by the courts, then a mall it shall be, with some talk of eventually building a mixed-income neighborhood on the site of the parking lot (which, because of bad deals cut by the Bloomberg administration and local councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, will never ever happen).
The Queens Islanders are a fantasy and a ploy, as a wayward ownership group tries to bilk New York City out of some taxpayer money or public land in exchange for another hockey team no one wants. But you know who does want the Islanders? Long Island. You know who just renovated an arena that has the capacity of what the Islanders consistently draw? Long Island. You know where they Islanders are going to be playing in 2019? On Long Island, where taxpayers smartly refused to publicly fund a new stadium until wealthy developers just went ahead and remodeled their old one. They deserve their hockey team back, and Queens is ready, once and for all, to let its fascination with even more stadiums finally die.