When Shea Stadium opened in 1964, its placement in a little-known part of Queens was a perfect reflection of the way American residential patterns were changing. It was placed near the convergence of several highways and bridges so that fans from the suburbs and from other boroughs could easily drive to the stadium and park in the gigantic lot encircling it. When Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, the majority of fans arrived on foot or via subway trains, but by 1964, most came to ball games by car, making Shea's location extremely practical - it was easy for motorists from Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey to get to games.
But a ballpark surrounded by a parking lot does not generate much romance or much interaction with its neighbors. Planners hope they can change this dynamic. Like the Yankees in the Bronx, the Mets hope to contribute to - and capitalize on - a general surge of improvements in Queens. Laird, the assistant planning commissioner for New York City's parks, says the new ballpark will be less isolated than Shea Stadium in two important ways.
"First, the new location of the park moves it out of the center of the parking lot, where it's an island surrounded by asphalt, and puts it in a corner of the property where it will actually be bordered by city streets on two sides, and that gives it a street face, which is important," he says. "Second is the planning effort being taken over by the city to develop the Willets Point area, on the other side of 126th Street from the park. The notion is to have that area for mixed use and to have the stadium across the street."
If the plan works, the run-down auto-repair shops in Willets Point would gradually be replaced by stores, restaurants, and other new businesses. The presence of the Mets office, the team store, and other year-round facilities is expected to spur investment, which at the moment is not very advanced.
"The Mets, much to their credit, planned this retail area knowing the market was not quite there yet," Laird says. "They'll have their team store there, but there's not much else, not a residential or business community there yet. The early going may be slow, but they are anticipating the redevelopment of Willets Point."
These far-reaching development plans for Queens and the Bronx may falter, but the undeniable fact is that both teams have decided to stay put rather than look for a more lucrative deal elsewhere. The trauma of 1957, when the Dodgers and then the Giants left for California, will not be repeated. The fabric of the city will improve, not deteriorate. And even New Yorkers who love to find fault are happy about that.
"It's both good and bad," says Jose Quiles, who lives near Yankee Stadium, about the planned new stadium. "It will create more jobs, but I guarantee you rents in the area are going to go up for people who can barely pay. But it's a great thing for the Bronx, a great thing for the fans. I couldn't imagine coming out here and not seeing the Yankees. When they finally pull the stadium down, the neighborhood is going to be sad at first. But, then, opening up a new stadium is like opening a new chapter. The good thing is they kept it right here in the Bronx."