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New Rules for Big Events at Flushing Meadows Corona Park Not Enough, Organizers Say

Big event producers want more access and fee transparency, while organizers of smaller-scale festivals worry about being displaced.

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Built for the 1964-65 World’s Fair, the Unisphere remains a local landmark and a symbol of Queens.

Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

The city is proposing changes to make Flushing Meadows Corona Park more available for large-scale and multi-day events, but event organizers argue that the new plan does not go nearly far enough.

The proposal, unveiled by the Department of Parks and Recreation last month, would establish a new permit process for multi-day events and those with more than 2,000 attendees at the Queens park — the borough’s largest and home to the World’s Fair in 1939 and 1964.

The goal, according to the department’s proposal, is to promote “a broader array of events and greater access” to the park, while taking into account the burden that big shows place on the park’s patrons and resources, as well as the traffic congestion they cause nearby.

“In order to limit unreasonable interference with the enjoyment of the park by other users,” Parks currently “restricts festivals … to one day only at almost every site,” its website says. Randall’s Island is “the one location where we regularly offer the ability to host a multi-day festival.”

The proposed rules would open up Flushing Meadows Corona Park to those multi-day events, though limiting them to only twice a year and to 40,000 attendees per day.

They also would give preference to events that did not take place at the site the year prior — a reversal from existing regulations that prioritize recurring events that producers say would make it difficult for those of them seeking to make the park an annual home base. 

Open for Business

At a public hearing earlier this month, major promoters like Live Nation, AEG Presents and Founders Entertainment convened in a modest recreational room at the Al Oerter Recreation Center in Flushing to lay out their objections and concerns, even as they say they’re enthusiastic about the possibility of a new venue. 

“We’re excited that the park is open for business,” said Dante DiPasquale, vice president of talent at AEG Presents, which produces dozens of music festivals nationwide, including the Head in the Clouds festival promoting acts from the Asian diaspora held over a weekend earlier this year in the Forest Hills Stadium just outside of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

“At the end of the day, it would be nice if there were more than two [multi-day] events,” DiPasquale said. “There are several different entities here… It would be nice if we all can get a shot at the park.”

Other event organizers also say the proposed rules do not adequately address issues around fee transparency, which they say make it difficult to do business with the park.

“Some of these rules need to be totally scrapped or they are just totally non-starters,” said Mike Luba, co-president of festival, tour and event producers Madison House Presents. “There’s a glorious window up and out to really replay the original purpose of what Flushing Meadows was built to do … But in my opinion, there’s a big gap between the rules as they are, and the actual real-life steps that need to be taken to enable this group of people to produce successful, safe, well thought-out and well-run events.”

The Parks Department did not comment for this article, but its proposal says that the new rules “will continue to include provisions that will maintain fairness in the application process.” 

Long Time Coming

What is now a 900-acre park had been an ash dump before then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses transformed it into the site of the 1939-1940 World’s Fair and, after World War II, into the temporary first home of the United Nations. It hosted a second World’s Fair, also under Moses’ watch, in 1964-1965. 

Today, about two-thirds of the park is occupied by attractions like the Queens Museum, the Queens Theater, the Mets’ Citi Field, and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home to the US Open. The park has wide pedestrian pathways flowing through it to help channel big groups of people from those venues into spaces meant for recreational use and special events.

“These boulevards that are set up and built inside Flushing Meadows Corona Park are literally built for what we’re trying to do,” said Kyle Casey, a member of the Coalition of Festivals and principal of Gravity Productions who has been organizing events in city parks since 2008.

Flushing Meadows Corona Park appeals to event producers exactly because of how it was built for big crowds and has numerous transit options, said Casey, who welcomed the department’s effort to open up the park.

The proposed rules would move up the special events permit application by two months to allow organizers to start the planning process in September for the following year, weeks after the Mets’ release their schedule, instead of November. Parks expects that “will assist event planners in executing successful events.” 

An archival photo shows the Perisphere, predecessor to the Unisphere, at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

New York Public Library Digital Archives

The proposed rule also would give preference to events that did not take place in the park in the year prior, which Casey said would make the space considerably less appealing to many big events that would want to return annually. 

“That is certainly something that I think should be changed,” said Tom Russell, a co-founder of and partner at Founders Entertainment, which operates the annual Governors’ Ball music festival that took place in the park this year and was headlined by Lizzo, Odesza and Kendrick Lamar. 

Charles Reagan Courtsey of Founders Entertainment

The event has moved from Governors’ Island to Randall’s Island Park to Citi Field’s parking lot over the years, and Russell told THE CITY that it is now eager for a “long-term home” — hopefully at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. During the public meeting, he said that location allowed the ball to be “operationally very successful” even though they had “lost a ton of money.”

Casey also noted that large-scale events are often “financially risky,” and would like to see the proposed rule bring more clarity to the additional fees that apply to concerts with more than 8,000 attendees.

“It’s not something that is, like, on the website or provided in any paperwork in advance when you apply for the permit. It’s not like you apply for the permit, and they say ‘Okay, here’s the price point,’” said Casey. “Honestly it’s a really difficult way to do business.”

While the Parks Department lists a fee schedule for other big events, it doesn’t specify the costs for concerts with more than 8,000 attendees. 

Dan Kastanis, a department spokesperson, said “that determination often requires a detailed review of the proposed event” based on factors including what police presence is called for, what other city resources would be involved, whether or not there’s an admission fee, the park being requested, and how the event’s location within a park impacts surrounding public amenities. 

Casey said it’s been difficult for concert producers to not know in advance exactly how much they would have to spend to rent out the park.

“In my opinion, there just isn’t enough interest on the part of the city to make this work. And it’s frustrating, I think, for those of us who look at the property and recognize how magical this could be,” he said. 

Space for Survival?

Trish Diaz, who has been hosting a one-day Hispanic pride festival called JuntaHispana at the park annually for 22 years, said she’s worried about competition from brand-name promoters as they turn their attention to the site.

While Diaz said she supports the city’s efforts to make it easier for promoters to hold events in the park and to lay out new ground rules for them now that demand has increased, she also hopes that the Parks proposal would carve out a lane for survival for family-oriented events like hers that cannot depend on headline acts from big-name artists to draw in crowds and rake in money.

“Why am I being held to the same standards and to the same investment levels as those people?” Diaz asked in an interview with THE CITY, referring to brand-name promoters. “And I’m not asking for a reduction in fees. I just am worried about, with those kind of people coming in — they have a bazillion dollars — I’m worried about, you know, what are they going to ask of me?”

Parks’ current rulemaking effort already proposes exceptions to sustain events that have been at Flushing Meadows Corona Park for ten years or longer, but Diaz said she hopes that the rules could be modified to create a tiered system that makes it easier and more affordable for smaller organizers to hold events there. 

“Everyone is looking for a way to save money,” she told THE CITY. “My concern is, what is the city going to do to support the events that have always been there that are culturally relevant?”

Diaz said she’s kept her festival at the Flushing Meadows Corona Park for more than two decades because “that park is in the middle of one of the most diverse Hispanic markets in the entire country.” 

She founded the festival, she said, after noticing a shortage of family-inclusive events for Hispanic New Yorkers. She works with consulates and cultural offices from all of the world’s Spanish speaking countries to fill that gap. 

“This is the whole basis of my event,” Diaz explained. “When you take your child — if you are Ecuadorian, and your husband is Mexican — you can take your kids and say ‘Mija, look at how special you are. Look at what you come from.’”

In part because of the pandemic, she said, “I don’t make any money from the event. I do it because I started something, hoping it would grow into something bigger and [it] has not.” 

She went on: “It’s been really, really hard.”

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