Willets Point might be making headway to become a destination for shopping and entertainment in the borough, but many either living or working near there are pointing out that the project could have negative effects on the surrounding area.
The Jackson Heights Green Alliance (JHGA) held an emergency meeting on Monday, October 1 to speak out against the parkland that would be lost be several projects planned around and within Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. This includes the development of Willets Point and the parking lot to the left of Citi Field, Willets West; renovation and expansion of the U.S. Tennis Center; and talks of a possible Major League Soccer (MLS) stadium where what is currently Industry Pond sits.
Donovan Finn, a professor of urban planning at Stony Brook University and JHGA board member, said the actual green space in the park was already significantly less than what is actually billed for the borough’s largest park. Factoring in facility buildings, water, walkways and other items, there are only 333 acres of actual green space, Finn said.
“I think it’s reasonable that when all is said and done in 20 years, in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, which the Parks Department claims is 1,200-and-some acres, usable green space [will be] 250 acres,” Finn said. “No one would be proposing these projects in Prospect Park and Central Park. They never have and they never will.”
Talks about a possible soccer stadium at Flushing Meadows were met with disapproval from residents in attendance. Finn said a stadium, which if constructed would hold around 25,000 spectators, would be the wrong solution to clean up the area around, and including, Industry Pond.
“I would argue it’s a heavily utilized part of the park,” he said. “They’re not taking over the whole park, I admit that, but this is not the kind of use that we need.”
Many of these concerns, among others, were brought before the city at a September 27 court-mandated scoping hearing for the Willets Point project. Residents, advocates and workers voiced concerns over traffic effects, the legalities of the project and the displacement of thousands of jobs, blaming these problems on several agencies.
The hearing was designed to create a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement(SEIS) to study a number of factors that might have changed since the General Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) that was filed in 2008, because parameters of the project have changed. The study will look at items ranging from potential transit issues, effects to businesses within half a mile and possible hazardous materials, according to officials.
Because the Citi Field parking lot — most of which will become Willets West — is technically parkland, some civic representatives alleged the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) had bypassed rules for parkland alienation.
Cristyne Nicholas, a spokesperson for the Joint Venture at Willets Point, noted that the development to the north of the park was separate from any expansion at the Tennis Center, or talks for a stadium within the park. And while the parking lot is technically parkland, Nicholas said the end result would great more green space within Willets, with the construction of recreational and open space areas.
“The Willets Point redevelopment will first and foremost clean 23 acres of contaminated land,” she said. “The Willets Point project will not in any way reduce the availability of open space within Flushing Meadows Corona Park. In fact, the project will increase open space for the community by building off-season recreational uses and five acres of additional open space on the Willets Point land.”
Christina Wilkinson, representing Communities of Maspeth and Elmurst Together, said there were several state parks polices needed to be addressed before Willets West could carry on.
“The developers of this project are not entitled to circumvent the parkland alienation process and the involvement of the State Parks Department in this matter,” she said. “The city never originally proposed that parkland would be involved in the Willets Point development, and the developers doing so at this late date does not provide any excuse to avoid the alienation process.”
Benjamin Branham, the NYCEDC’s vice president for external affairs, said the hearing would help guide the project moving forward and fully understand what needs to be done to get the Willets project off the ground.
“[The] public hearing for the proposed Willets Point redevelopment plan marked an important first step in the approvals process for this transformative project that will clean up dozens of acres of toxic land and create thousands of jobs for Queens residents,” he said. “We are grateful for the significant turnout, strong enthusiasm and extensive engagement from the community on this critical project, and we look forward to continuing the dialogue we move forward.”