Dismay over likely Willets ramp approval

Dismay over likely Willets ramp approval
Opponents of the city’s proposal to redevelop Willets Point are concerned about e-mails that suggest the state will soon approve a key aspect of the plan. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Connor Adams Sheets

A representative of a coalition of Willets Point business and property owners opposed to the city’s plan to undertake a $3 billion redevelopment of the neglected area says he is dismayed at indications that the state may be green-lighting the project.

Earlier this month, Willets Point United obtained new e-mail correspondence under the Freedom of Information Law from the state Department of Transportation that intimated the agency was moving faster than previously thought toward approval of the environmental and traffic plans for the project.

According to Michael Gerrard, an environmental attorney working on behalf of Willets Point United, the “tone of the e-mails” suggested that the state DOT had completed its environmental review of the proposed development and that it planned to approve the city’s plan for building ramps onto the Van Wyck Expressway to deal with tens of thousands of new car trips the project is expected to create each day.

Without approval of the ramps plan, the project faces a significant legal challenge from Willets Point United, which recently moved to reopen a case against the city Economic Development Corp. for going back on sworn statements that it would not begin eminent domain proceedings before the state signed off on the ramps.

“We received some additional response about two weeks ago or so, correspondence which made it appear that state DOT was amenable to approving the ramps,” Gerrard said. “They had never said whether or not they were going to approve the ramps, but there was a lot of skepticism within the agency in the old e-mails that we saw. That skepticism was not nearly as pronounced in the new e-mails.”

The city EDC said it anticipated receiving the state DOT’s approval in the near future and that it had heard the agency was likely to rule favorably.

“We are eagerly awaiting approval on the ramps, and in the meantime continue to move forward with the project,” EDC spokeswoman Julie Wood said in a statement.The state DOT did not return a request for comment.

State Sen. Tony Avella said he met with state DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald recently and that she said the agency had yet to decide whether or not to give its approval.

“I had a personal meeting with the state DOT commissioner looking at the issues of the ramps within the EIS that the city did and also other issues,” Avella said Tuesday. “They said basically they were still reviewing it.”

Gerrard wrote a letter April 19 to Phillip Eng, regional director of the state DOT, stating his displeasure with the tone of the agency’s recent e-mail correspondence. The letter was forwarded to the Federal Highway Authority, which conducts oversight over the state’s approval process for the project.

“It appears that NYS DOT has ignored its own justified skepticism, expressed eloquently by its own staff in voluminous internal exchanges and in communication with NYC EDC that have been obtained by FOIL,” he said, in reference to the Freedom of Information Law.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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