Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lawsuit Filed To Stop Mega-Mall In Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

The Bloomberg Administration and the City Council are attempting to hand over 47. 5 acres of Flushing Meadows - Corona Park worth $ 1 billion dollars to The Related Companies and Sterling Equities to build a 1.4 million sq. ft. mall known as Willets Point West. They are attempting to push this through without receiving any approvals or even voting on the massive project.  


A coalition of area residents,  environmental groups, business and home owners, and State Senator Tony Avella filed a lawsuit in New York County Supreme Court on Monday demanding the City halt its illegal handing over of mapped Parkland to build a mega-mall.

The suit also asks the Court to nullify actions taken by the Planning Commission, and approved by the Council in October of last year, to permit construction of parking facilities in Willets Point in lieu of the affordable housing and supportive facilities called for by the 2008 plan. 

The complaint alleges that the project cannot proceed without approval by the State Legislature under the “public trust” doctrine that protects all parkland throughout the State against non-park uses without the consent of the Legislature which was not requested or obtained.

The Bloomberg Administration and the City Council are attempting to hand over 47.5 acres of Flushing Meadows - Corona Park in Queens worth $ 1 billion dollars to The Related Companies and Sterling Equities to build a 1.4 million sq. ft. mall known as Willets Point West.   They are attempting achieve this without receiving any approvals or even voting on the project.  

The complaint also alleges violations of the City’s Zoning Resolution and Charter, and seeks annulment of approvals granted by the City to date for the related Willets Point plan.

In October the City Council approved zoning amendments to the Willet's Point plan,  allowing a multi-phased development and temporary parking on part of the Willets point site.   These amendments however do not permit the building of a massive 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall much less a massive 1.4 million square foot shopping mall on mapped parkland.

Related Companies and Sterling Equities are attempting to build a 1.4 million square foot mall on 47.5 acres of mapped parkland in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, west of Citi-Field stadium.  This represents the largest public parkland giveaway in recent history. The proposed project would allow the seizing of the public parkland to be used exclusively for non-park purposes without first getting State Alienation approval as is required under the law.  The construction of such a mall on public parkland would be unprecedented. (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) 

The Bloomberg administration and the City Council are attempting to bypass land use procedures including the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP),  and  state law which requires State Alienation legislation approval to use parkland for non-park purposes.   Mayor Bloomberg claimed all land use powers of the former Board of Estimate as belonging to him, clearly a violation of ULURP.  

From 1964 to 2006,  30.7 of the 47.5 acres of the site near the northerly end of the Park was occupied by Shea Stadium.  When Shea was demolished and replaced in 2009 by Citi Field at a location slightly east of the Shea site, the project site became a parking field for visitors to Citi Field.  The site has also been used for a variety of public recreational events including foot races, circus performances, an annual wheelchair baseball game, and concerts.

In 2012, Sterling Equities and the Related Companies convinced the Bloomberg administration to allow the massive shopping mall on Park property.

In October Council member Julissa Ferreras attempted to justify and explain why the public parkland was now part of the deal and was given away - the developers and the Mayor wanted it.   

"The mall is something that the developers and the administration believe is necessary to be able to support the build-out of Willets Point,"  she said.  

In 2008 the City Council approved a Willets Point plan to place the intended retail development in the neighboring Willets Point development project along with affordable housing, the Park was never part of the project.

Delivering The Deal.  Big Winners. A beaming Related Companies' Charles  J.  O'Byrne, Queens City Council member Julissa Ferreras,  Jeff Wilpon - New York Mets COO and the executive vice-president of Sterling Equities and son of New York Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon, and Glenn  A. Goldstein - president of Related Retail and registered lobbyist pose on October 8th shortly after the City Council vote. (Photo: William Alatriste /New York City Council) 

“Parks are intended to serve the people, to provide open space, landscaping, opportunities for recreation, playgrounds for children, and escape from the hordes and noise of a busy commercial city," said State Senator Tony Avella, a plaintiff in the suit.   

"The only commercial uses that belong in them are those, such as snack stands, that enhance the park experience.  A shopping center is not one of them.  We have a wonderful law that is supposed to assure all of this, known as the ‘public trust doctrine.’  I’m outraged when the people who are supposed to administer parks for everyone turn them over to private interests without seeking the State Legislature's consent as the public trust doctrine requires.  So, I am very pleased to be a party to this action.” the Senator said.

The contention that the 1961 law exempts this transaction from the public trust doctrine, says John Low-Beer, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, is wrong. 

“The 1961 law was intended to allow a stadium and uses directly related to a stadium, such as parking, concessions, and other commercial activity typically incidental to a professional sports arena.”

Low-Beer adds that the 1961 law “says nothing about a shopping center.  In fact, the Legislature explicitly prohibited any purely commercial uses other than ones strictly related to the stadium, such as concession stands.  The public trust doctrine requires that any legislative consent be very specific about what it will allow.  If it doesn’t specify a use, then that use is not permitted.”

The suit was filed on behalf of State Senator Tony Avella, The City Club of New York, NYC Park Advocates, a City-wide parks advocacy group that helped to establish “Save Flushing Meadows Park.” 

The plaintiffs include Paul Graziano, Ben Haber, and Alfredo Centola who have prominently opposed a spate of recent proposals for new or enlarged sports venues in the Park, as well as the shopping center.

The efforts of “Save Flushing Meadows Park,” a coalition of many Queens civic groups and individuals helped thwart the proposed professional soccer stadium, though it was unable to stop a half-acre expansion of the Tennis Center.  Several of the plaintiffs have also led opposition to the shopping center.

Other plaintiffs are individuals and businesses falling into several categories including nearby residents, park users, and businesses along Roosevelt Avenue and in Willets Point having special concerns about traffic and business displacement.

The efforts of the “Save Flushing Meadows Park” group were recently bolstered by the City Club which took on the shopping center as a major project after successfully participating in a campaign to defeat a proposed upzoning of the East Midtown area around Grand Central Terminal that would have doubled the permissible bulk in much of the area.  After Council leaders announced in early November that the Council would vote against the plan, Mayor Bloomberg withdrew it.

Michael Gruen, President of the City Club, said that the City Club joined the shopping center fight out of concern that “Flushing Meadows Park has long suffered from neglect in maintenance and from getting eaten away as a recreational park by a voracious assumption that every new idea for a commercial sporting activity should be given a home in this one Park.

The proposed  1.4 million square foot retail and entertainment development was approved by the City Planning Commission on Wednesday.

Fortunately some of the worst, such as a proposed “grand prix” race track around the lake, have been defeated.  But this is a beautiful park and it deserves much better treatment.”

Gruen added that the City Club sees the shopping center project as “perhaps the most egregious example of commercialization of parkland throughout the city.  There are places where the annual cycle of fashion shows and holiday bazaars leave little time for enjoying the open space and landscaping. That it is the worst of a pattern of treating parkland as an asset to be sold off for commercial use caused us to take it on so that we could get the courts to draw a clear line:  commercial uses that do not enhance the recreational experience of parks do not belong in the parks.”

Gruen said that the City Club hopes “clearly to confirm that any alienation of parkland requires legislative action, very specifically stating what uses are to be allowed.  The legislative consent must then be construed narrowly by the courts so that ambiguities in statutory language cannot be exploited, as the developers here are trying to do, to justify other commercial uses that the legislature had no evident intention of condoning.”

The case is filed in the New York County Supreme Court.  John Low-Beer, Lorna Goodman and Meredith Feinman represent the plaintiffs.

The complaint asks the Court to declare that the shopping mall project is illegal and to enjoin further steps toward its construction without compliance with applicable law including the public trust doctrine, and without imposing appropriate zoning regulations on the site.

It also asks the Court to nullify actions taken by the Planning Commission, and approved by the Council in October of last year, to permit construction of parking facilities in Willets Point in lieu of the affordable housing and supportive facilities called for by the 2008 plan.  The complaint asserts that the Commission and Council knew that the changes in the Willets Point plan were needed for no other purpose than to accommodate stadium parking displaced by the intended shopping center, and knew that the shopping center project itself is illegal without approval of the legislature.

They knew that their action would facilitate illegal construction of the shopping mall, the promoters of which had clearly stated their belief that they could proceed with without legislative approval.  The Commission and Council thereby acted illegally, and arbitrarily and capriciously.

The Related Companies and Sterling Equities just got approval to build this mall on the western parking lot of Citi Field.
The proposed mall across from CitiField.

Read More:

New York Post  - February 11, 2014 - By Minsi Chung

New York Daily News -  February 11, 2014 - By Beth Stebner   

Queens  Chronicle -  February 10, 2014  by Peter C. Mastrosimone 

DNAinfo - February 11, 2014 - By Katie Honan

City Limits - By Patrick Arden

Legal questions emerge about Citi Field mall 
City Limits - By Patrick Arden

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