BY NICK BUGLIONE
Before there was a LaGuardia Airport, there was a little field in Flushing that brought Queens to the forefront of aviation and raised its visitors to touch the sky by plane and by blimp.
Today, that field is lost benefit a puddle of wetlands, fears of mosquitoes breeding, and fences to keep children from playing in the mire. The field used to be called Flushing Airport.
WHAT USED TO BE
Aviation played a significant role in the development of Queens in the earlier part of the 20th century. Flushing Airport opened in 1927 and quickly became one of the busiest airports in the city.
Yet with the completion of LaGuardia Airport in 1939, a sizable portion of the airport’s commuter business was drawn away.
As the community became increasingly suburban, accidents and near misses became almost inevitable. The airport’s tiny runway was occasionally mistaken by 727 pilots for nearby LaGuardia —
and the large planes would fly low over the heads of local residents before being re-directed by the LaGuardia control tower.
During the 1964 World’s Fair, two Goodyear Blimps used Flushing Airport as a summer base. “They stayed there for several months for two years in a row,” said Alan Gross, a Flushing resident who has lived near the airport since 1952.
At least one airship returned annually until the mid-70s when the airport’s future became uncertain.
By that time controversy began to surround the airport following the crash of a light aircraft into a nearby house. Although the airport was being used only by skywriting planes and the occasional blimp, accidents and mishaps had sparked a community outcry that forced its closing by the early 1980s.
But despite the vocal opposition, there was a significant movement to keep Flushing Airport operational.
Since its closing, water from the surrounding marsh has flooded the airport’s abandoned runways and decaying hangers and the city has begun selling off parcels of the airport’s land in what is now the College Point Corporate Park, opening the opportunity for commercial development.
Shopping sites now line 20th Avenue, and the New York Times color printing plant was built on what used to be the eastside of the airport’s property. Within the last year, a movie complex and a Toy’s R Us toy store opened on the south end of the field.
AS IT IS TODAY
Though speculation on the future of Flushing Airport has grown, officials from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) — which currently owns the land — said their top priority has been cleaning up the neglected site.
With the advent of the West Nile virus last summer, and its resurgence again this season, city officials have expressed concern that the abandoned and water drenched land might be playing host to a number of infected mosquitoes.
“Our concern was that the old, dilapidated equipment and holes in the airfield’s tarmac would be ideal mosquito breeding locations,” explained Senator Frank Padavan. Compounding local politician’s fears was the fact that the surrounding neighborhood was the epicenter of the virus when it first broke out a year ago.
“Unless a major remediation effort was made, involving larvicides as well as the removal of abandoned equipment, the site would constitute a major health threat to College Point residents and workers,” said Padavan.
The EDC has now hired a private contractor to embark on a $25,000 cleanup project.
Tires, metal drums and other forms of debris were disposed of by heavy machinery, said Janel Patterson, spokeswoman for the EDC. Patterson added that the EDC has sent out inspectors to see if the job was satisfactorily completed.
The cleanup project, estimated to take 10 days, involved about 75 percent of the airport’s 78-acre site. The other 25 percent is considered to be freshwater wetlands, which falls under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
“Wetlands are identified by the presence of vegetation only found in soils that are in water year round,” said Joe Pane from the DEC.
The subject of the wetlands at Flushing Airport is currently playing a significant role in what will become of the land which, since its closing, has become a preserve of vegetation and other wildlife.
“We submitted a plan to the State Department of Environmental Conservation regarding the wetlands,” said Patterson. “We’re waiting to hear from them.”
The DEC is currently attempting to ascertain what amount of the land is developable and what must be preserved as wetlands.
Once that is complete, Patterson said the EDC will send out a formal request for proposals to see what local developers can dream up for the site.
DEC officials said no time frame exists for when they will be able to publicly announce their findings.
“The city has plans for development for part of the parcel in exchange for wetlands enhancement,” said DEC spokeswoman Mary Ellen Kris.
AN AIRPORT FOR TOMORROW
“In my mind, and as a kid, I never saw the blimps not coming back to Flushing Airport,” said blimp enthusiast and president of Airships Unlimited Inc., Alan Gross.
Gross is a determined man with a dream and, along with his partner John Taylor, he has proposed the building of a blimp port on the grounds of the former Flushing Airport, transforming it into the College Point Airship Park.
According to Gross, the facility would consist of a large, triangular, grass, take-off and landing area, and would include a parking and observation complex on the north edge of the property along 20th Avenue. The creation of a “lighter-than-air” museum and learning center are also in the works, as well as a them restaurant.
The airport would be able to maintain the operation and mooring of about two or three blimps, Gross said. These airships, usually 100 to 200 feet long, do not require runways and only need an approximately 1,000-foot circle for landing and maneuvering.
“The facility would become a major attraction over time,” said Gross, explaining that an airship park would attract a great deal of tourism to the borough.
“The blimp operation would also ensure that a lot of green space remains,” Gross added, noting that blimps are relatively pollution and noise-free, guaranteeing minimal disruption to the community and surrounding ecology. He added that such a park would also create jobs.
Though Gross could not estimate how much the project would cost, he said it would surely be a multi-million dollar undertaking.
“We’re working with a contractor and looking into ways to get federal, state and local government funding,” said Gross.
While the plan is still in its developmental stages, a number of community members have voiced their approval for the College Point Airship Park.
College Point civic leader Sabina Cardali commented, “We absolutely need it. It’s a fine project that Alan Gross has.”
According to Marilyn Bitterman, district manager of Community Board 7, the board has not yet taken an official position on the plan.
“It hasn’t come before the board so at this time there’s really no comment,” she said. However, Bitterman did confirm that the board is seeking to utilize Flushing Airport as some sort of aviation theme park.
“There’s going to be a considerable number of plans,” said Taylor, executive vice president of Airships Unlimited, explaining that theirs will not be the only proposal on the table for Flushing Airport. “We obviously will be in a competitive bidding situation.”
For more information on the plan for the College Point Airship Park, visit its Internet site at www.blimpport.com.
— Richard Schack and Richard Fasanella contributed to this story