On opening day at Citi Field, crowds in blue and orange descended from the No. 7 train tracks as rows of cars filled the parking lot. Friends and families gathered around tailgates for games of cornhole, beers from the cooler, and portable grills cooking hot dogs and burgers.
“It’s a family tradition to come to opening day every year,” said Bill Glass, 58, who stood with a red plastic cup in hand near the tailgate of his car, his children lounging on lawn chairs next to it. “My oldest is 25, and he’s been to almost every one.”
But these game day traditions will almost certainly have to move elsewhere if Mets owner Steve Cohen were to hit a home run on his swing to redevelop the 50-acre parking lot.
Over the past few months, as THE CITY has reported, the billionaire hedge fund manager has hosted hosted “visioning sessions” and spent hundreds of thousands lobbying state and city officials as he’s angled to develop a casino on the parking lot, which is legally designated as public parkland now and therefore off-limits to new construction.
A bill introduced late last month by local Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry (D-Queens), though, would allow Cohen to develop and operate “a gaming facility and, in conjunction with such facility, commercial, retail, entertainment, recreational, hotel, convention, and or community facility uses” on the site.
Aubry told THE CITY in January that, based on conversations he’s had with Cohen’s team, the development plan would include turning the existing lot into a casino with built-in restaurants, as well as a vertical parking structure and an above-ground park connecting the 7-train station to the World’s Fair Marina.
If Cohen gets his way, the expanse of asphalt could disappear, or change drastically. That could change fans’ time-honored tradition, they told THE CITY outside of Friday’s game.
Corona native Stephan Santos, 35, worried that new setups would dampen tailgating spirits — which he noted is “everything.”
“It’s pride. It’s what we do,” Santos said. Loud music boomed from a speaker near a car as he spoke.
“Nah, hell no,” Santos said of the prospect of building out a casino. “Let’s not get greedy, we’re happy with one,” he added, referring to Resorts World NYC, just to the south, also in Queens.
For Glass, the plan brought concerns that new development would render the ball games inaccessible to the average Mets fan. He’s already noticed signs of increasing cost; parking fees now cost $40, he said, compared to the $25 he remembered from last year.
“If they’re gonna develop the land, it’s gonna cut down on our parking options,” said Glass, who had driven from New Jersey to attend the game. “For the average family, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to come to games.”
A Cohen spokesperson, however, noted that the Mets boss has already given his team “a mandate to improve the transportation and parking situation for Mets fans and the surrounding communities.”
“Any vision for the area will improve the status quo and provide more options, not less for parking, transportation, and the overall fan experience,” the spokesperson said, adding that “any vision would include tailgating options.”
Not everyone outside Citi Field had a problem with Cohen’s big idea. Some are eager to see the parking lot developed to include more entertainment options.
“He wants to make it an area where you can come out of a game and hang out, have a good time you know?” said 55-year-old Douglass Hollander, who tailgated with his friends from Long Island on Friday. “It sounds pretty cool.”
Past a stretch of parked cars, on the opposite end of the lot, 62-year-old butcher Edwin Roldan has been tasked with the role of being the tailgate’s grill master — cooking up close to 30 patties and about 40 hot dogs by noon.
Tailgating in Citi Field’s parking lot has been an essential part of his family’s gameday tradition, he told THE CITY. He has not missed an opening day in at least 15 years, he added, and attended on Friday with his grandchildren and son, who used to help maintain Citi Field as a construction worker.
“A casino is welcome,” Roldan said, as long as it “gives jobs” and generates taxes — and doesn’t further restrict already limited parking and tailgating space.
The three burger patties on the grill were now ready to be served, as Roldan carefully transferred them onto the buns.
“You know, he got me onto this — the tailgating, the whole thing, everything,” one of Roldan’s friends now chimed in. Next to him, another friend, Edward Martinez, looked for photos of when he reconnected with Roldan at a Mets game.
The two had become friends playing Little League baseball as kids in the Rockaways — and hadn’t seen each other for about 40 years before running into each other in between innings about 10 years ago.
“We’ve been coming to games together ever since,” Roldan said.
“And that’s the way it’s done,” Martinez responded.