This week the city will initiate an eminent domain process that will set the stage for the possible seizing of the property belonging to holdout landowners in Willets Point. The city is eager to begin the first phase of a redevelopment of a 62-acre site that lies between Citi Field and downtown Flushing. If things go as planned, the project will create 5,000 apartments and 1.7 million square feet of retail space.
The development will also generate construction jobs that could last as long as 10 years along with hundreds of permanent jobs in hotels and stores. At a time when the city is reeling from the recession and record unemployment, this is welcome news. Nevertheless, we are uncomfortable with the use of eminent domain to advance this or any private development.
More than a century ago the courts began allowing government to use the right of eminent domain when a private property stood in the way of a public project. Owners who refused to relocate could be forced to sell their property for what the court decided was the fair market value. But in recent years cities across the nation have extended the use of eminent domain to include the takeover of private property to facilitate private development that the government claims will be beneficial to their economies.
The use of eminent at Willets Point may prove to be legal, but it is also chilling. Don’t get us wrong: At the moment Willets Point is an eyesore, a flooded-out junkyard. It detracts from the ballpark and other facilities in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and is crying out for massive redevelopment. For many reasons we hope that the project can move forward.
But it is regrettable the city could not find some way to persuade the holdout property owners to relocate without resorting to eminent domain. It is also the case that many of the problems in Willets Point are the result of the city’s neglect. The roads filled with potholes caused by constant flooding are the city’s responsibility.
We find ourselves torn. We are enthusiastic about the redevelopment of Willets Point but unenthusiastic about the steps being taken to allow this to happen.