Proposed Nightmare - Willets Point West. Last month City Council voted on a resolution that supported a $1 billion Bloomberg-era giveaway of 47.5 acres of public parkland in Flushing Meadow’s Corona Park to one of the country’s most politically connected developers.
By Geoffrey Croft
The City Council recently voted on a resolution that supported a $1 billion Bloomberg-era giveaway of 47.5 acres of public parkland in Flushing Meadow’s Corona Park to one of the country’s most politically connected developers. Only that’s not what the resolution explicitly stated or even implied.
The resolution claimed it was authorizing the Council to file an amicus brief, “to support the prior approval of the Willets Point development plan by the City Council,” as well as to “defend” it.
However, that is not the issue before the Court of Appeals that the Council was purportedly supporting. What is in front of the court is Willets Point West, which the resolution conveniently omitted.
The Queens Development Group, a joint venture between the Related Companies and Sterling Equities, is attempting to build a 1.4 million-square-foot mall on mapped parkland west of Citi Field stadium. The proposed Willets West mall project would allow the seizing of the parkland to be used exclusively for non-park purposes without first getting state alienation approval as is required under law. The construction would be unprecedented and represent the largest parkland giveaway in recent history. The appellate court also said it was illegal.
In February 2014, a coalition of residents, environmental groups including NYC Park Advocates, businesses, homeowners and state Sen. Tony Avella filed a lawsuit in New York County Supreme Court demanding the city halt its illegal handing over of mapped parkland to build a mega-mall.
In July 2015 the Appellate Division First Department unanimously rejected the building of the mall because it failed to first obtain the necessary approval. The court ruled that the project violated the Public Trust Doctrine and prevented any construction from going forward.
The court ruled that the original 1961 legislation which authorized the building of Shea Stadium did not allow the developers to build the mall nor the city to give away the land for non-park purposes.
“No reasonable reading of Administrative Code section 18-118 allows for the conclusion that the legislature in 1961 contemplated, much less gave permission for, a shopping mall, unrelated to the anticipated stadium, to be constructed in the Park,” the Appellate Division First Department wrote in its opinion.
The de Blasio administration declined to join the defendants in their appeal, not out of a responsible public policy to preserve parkland but instead in the hopes of renegotiating better affordable housing terms than the deal struck under the Bloomberg administration. In declining to join the case, the city’s Law Department recognized that the defendants did not have legal standing to develop the parkland.
But none of this is deterring the City Council.
“The Willets Point development plan was approved by the City Council in 2013 by a vote of 42-3. The Council and I stand by our process and authority, and we are prepared to defend that decision in the on-going litigation,” Councilmember Julissa Ferreras-Copeland said in a statement justifying her support.
It is important to understand that the proposed mall was not part of the original Willets Point development that the City Council approved in 2008, or subsequently, as Ferreras-Copeland is erroneously claiming. The parkland was thrown in years later to sweeten the deal for the developers and has never received any legislative approval. Zero. In October 2013 the Council voted to approve a special permit which authorized the temporary use of land in Willets Point for parking. That’s it.
Julissa’s ill-conceived Flushing Meadows Park Alliance, which is predicated on businesses exploiting the park, also stands to gain $5 million from Related if the deal goes through.
The defendants have done their best in court papers and in statements to the media to say these two projects are connected when they are not, and now they have convinced a so-called “progressive” City Council to do their bidding which includes getting them to mislead their own colleagues. This is shameful.
This issue is about greed pure and simple. The defendants are attempting a billion-dollar land grab at the taxpayers’ expense.
This action is a continuation of a Bloomberg policy, a legacy the current mayor went to great lengths to try to differentiate himself from while running for office. What the public got, however, at least in terms of parkland policy, is more of the same.
The Chronicle’s Dec. 17 editorial calling the Council’s resolution “offensive” and characterizing it as a backroom deal was right on point.
Their shameful support of this irresponsible park land giveaway — voting 46-2 in favor with one abstention — defies logic. There is nothing “progressive” about that.
It is the government’s job to protect public parks and certainly not allow them to be given away to wealthy developers.
Geoffrey Croft is President of NYC Park Advocates, a watchdog group dedicated to protecting and improving public parks.
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