In the 80-year history of Meadow Lake, there have been plans for the waterway that did not go beyond the planning phase. Having examined designs for a never-built mid-lake bridge, I will now look at the 1980s plan to install a racetrack around its shores.
From the 1983 map by Wilson Racing, the outline of the lake appears unchanged, but can one imagine the impact on the park if the Grand Prix proposal had happened?
The proposal emerged in the news in 1983, when Daniel Koren, president of New York Grand Prix, announced the proposal for a racetrack around the lake. “‘We’re talking about an international event that is televised over satellite all over Europe, the Iron Curtain countries, all of Latin America and Asia, live and simultaneously,” he said to the New York Times. ”It’s a major, major event.” The race would have involved 26 cars racing at over 100 miles per hour for 75 laps on the 2.5-mile route. The event would have kept this section of the park closed to the public for five days.
As a concession to Parks, the Grand Prix would have repaved the paths around the lake, planed trees and improved drainage, along with money going towards the park’s conservancy group. From Mayor Ed Koch, down to Queens Borough President Donald Manes and Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern, the city’s leadership was behind the project on the grounds of job creation, tourism, and the economy. Civic opposition killed the plan and by 1986, it was as good as dead. On top of bribes and kickbacks relating to parking violations, Manes’ cozy relationship with the racetrack’s promoters attracted the attention of federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani. Depressed from the string of scandals, Manes committed suicide in January 1986.
NYC2012: The Olympic Proposal
At the turn of the millennium, proponents of bringing the 2012 Summer Olympic Games to New York City sought to redesign Meadow Lake to accommodate long-distance boat racing. The curvy shoreline of the lake would have been straightened into a rectangular shape, with docks on the west shore and reviewing stands on the other side. An arm of the lake behind the docks was designed for practice runs.
The Olympic requirement of 2,000 meters would have meant the elimination of the isthmus separating Meadow and Willow Lakes, with Jewel Avenue given a dramatic arch bridge across the merged lake. The depth would need to be dredged to 3.5 meters, again in line with Olympic standards. As with the Grand Prix proposal, the Olympic plan envisioned environmental benefits for the lake with a naturalistic wetland carved at its southern tip and a cleanup that would have dredged its bottom from decades of pollutants. Here too, civic opposition killed the plan and the games were awarded to London.
To see what Meadow Lake would have looked like as an Olympic boat racing venue, one can look at London’s venue, Dorney Lake. But not all Olympic canoeing venues have to look unnatural. In 2016, Rio de Janeiro used the scenic Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon as its boating venue.
The Race that Finished
One race at Meadow Lake that became a reality and has been growing in popularity is the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York. Proposed by the Hong Kong Economic and Trace Office, its first inaugural race took place in 1990 on the Hudson River. The choppy water and boat traffic on the Hudson made it an unwelcome venue and the race was relocated to Meadow Lake. In contrast to the Grand Prix and the Olympics, this race does not alter the lake’s environment or shape in any significant way. By now, the lake has become synonymous with dragon boat racing as much as Times Square is a byword for theaters, and Wall Street is to finance.
Tour the Lake by Bike
This Sunday, September 9, I will be giving a bike tour along the shore of Meadow Lake with NYC H2O, Guardians of Flushing Bay, Wall Street Dragons and Friends of Flushing Creek. Signed copies of my book Hidden Waters of New York City will be available for sale. Reserve your spot here for the tour and bring your own bike. Although there is a fee for my tour, the round-the-lake route envisioned for racing cars can be followed by bikes at any time, free of charge.
It doesn’t matter much any longer. Formula 1 (Grand Prix) racing isn’t anywhere near as popular as it used to be. Today NASCAR is the biggest thing in racing, and of course New York doesn’t have a track.