Willets bid process called into question

Willets bid process called into question
Rendering courtesy Michael Bloomberg
By Joe Anuta

The winners of a bid to redevelop Willets Point may have had a leg up on the competition, although the city said the selection process was completely unbiased.

The partnership of Sterling Equities and Related Cos. submitted the winning design to transform the Iron Triangle, which is currently without a sewer system and basic city services, into a hub of retail and housing encompassing Citi Field in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

The mayor unveiled the plans at a June 14 breakfast and touted the proposal as “exactly as envisioned and approved by the community and City Council back in 2008.”

But there was one component of the plan that no one had seen before, not even the other developers who bid on the roughly $3 billion project.

When the city released its request for proposals in May 2011, it was seeking developers to build in a precisely defined area along 126th Street across from Citi Field.

The Sterling and Related plan calls for development within the boundaries defined in the RFP, but it also features another 1 million-square-foot retail and entertainment block to the west of the stadium.

Called Willets West, it will be built in the New York Mets parking lot on land not mentioned as available for development in the RFP.

People knowledgeable of the bidding process who did not want to be identified said no one other than Sterling Equities and Related Cos. knew development to the west of the stadium was a possibility.

Sterling Equities is owned by the Wilpon family, which also owns the Mets.

The land where Willets West is proposed is currently leased to the Mets and thus the Wilpon family.

The city Economic Development Corp. said in a statement that any of the developers competing to win the contract could propose whatever they wanted, meaning any extra projects were never off the table but simply would not be funded as part of the redevelopment project.

“As with any RFP, respondents can propose what they believe to be the best project within their ability and are free to form partnerships to achieve that end,” an EDC spokeswoman said. “The chosen proposal fulfills the original vision for Willets Point and more. We look forward to working with the team on this historic project.”

Amid questions on whether or not development on the parking lot is even legal — it technically sits on strictly regulated parkland — the city has contended that a 1961 state law allows development in the footprint of Citi Field and all of the surrounding parking lots.

“This project is allowed under the same 1961 state legislation that authorized the construction of Shea Stadium and also permits a broad range of other uses beyond stadiums,” said Elizabeth Thomas, of the city Law Department. “The planned entertainment and retail destination will enhance the attraction of Citi Field and the entire Flushing Meadows area.”

The legislation does indeed stipulate that the parking lots and stadium land can be used for a wide variety of retail, recreation, entertainment, amusement or educational uses.

Any use has to benefit the Mets, though.

A clause in the law requires any development to aid in the financing of the team’s stadium, or any development associated with that stadium.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.