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Willets West crucial to Iron Triangle plan

Photo by Yinghao Luo
By Joe Anuta

The group selected by the city to build a $3 billion, mixed-use neighborhood at Willets Point has revealed ambitious plans for the new neighborhood, but their vision would not have been possible without a separate proposed retail center on a parking lot to the west of Citi Field.

In June, the city ended a bidding process to develop a portion of the Iron Triangle when it selected a plan proposed by the Manhattan real estate firm Related Cos. and the real estate arm of the New York Mets, Sterling Equities.

In the partnership’s proposal, 23 acres of Willets Point immediately to the east of the Amazin’s’ ballpark, currently home to a buzzing network of auto body shops and industrial businesses, would be developed and the soil beneath cleaned of toxic contamination, representatives from both entities said in a recent meeting at the TimesLedger Newspapers’ offices.

But the entire project hinged on what is known as Willets West, a million-square-foot entertainment and retail development slated for the western parking lot near Citi Field that would not only provide economic benefits to the developers, but would also help transform the area into a desirable place to live.

If the project comes to fruition — it currently faces opposition from a group of Willets Point property owners who fear the city’s possible use of eminent domain to seize their land — it would mark the end of a decades-long struggle to transform the area.

“What has been probably the biggest element here, the biggest hindrance to redevelopment, is the condition of the property,” said Ethan Goodman, the project manager and a lawyer with Wachtel, Masyr & Missry.

In order to build on the 23 acres, the toxic soil beneath needs to be removed and properly disposed of. And when that happens, an underground barrier will be put in place, like a subterranean wall running around the perimeter of the site, in order to prevent any toxins from migrating from the surrounding contaminated soil into the clean soil.

Replacing the soil, slated to be completed in 2015, is the first in what the team referred to as a five-step transformation.

By 2016, the developers hope to have completed a series of low-scale retail and restaurant locations along 126th Street across from Citi Field, along with a 200-room hotel, which comprises the second step.

The third step is building Willets West. It will be composed of about 200 smaller stores along with one or two large anchor tenants, according to Goodman.

But because it is on park land, the development becomes a legal issue.

A law stipulates that anything built on the property is legal as long as it benefits the Mets, meaning no other development firm could have proposed to build on the land aside from Sterling. The partnership contends the law allows the movie theaters, restaurants and other entertainment venues they would like to build.

But opponents say the development is not only an egregious misuse of parkland but also illegal. The law would only permit something like a souvenir shop, for example.

Either way, Jesse Masyr, an attorney also from Wachtel, Masyr & Missry, said including a retail engine like Willets West was the only way to make the entire project economically feasible, a way of hedging the partners’ bets when they have to also put in housing, a much more risky investment that is required as part of the bidding process.

“It was fundamental to our thinking,” he said. “We need to create a critical mass, an economic development engine.”

Willets West would also make the area a more desirable place to live, he said.

Glenn Goldstein, president of Related Retail, said the tepid housing market that has affected other developments in Queens proved to his team that an economic center was needed in order to fulfill what the city wanted to see at Willets Point.

“It just reaffirms our thoughts that the market now isn’t there and we needed to create a place where people want to live,” he said.

The fourth step in the plan calls for the construction of additional exit ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway, built on the city’s dime, in 2021, which will pave the way for the final portion of the project, the construction of market-rate and affordable housing set to begin in 2024 and end in approximately 2028.

“We would envision that it wouldn’t all be built at once,” Goodman said. “It would probably be an organic, block-by-block devilment.”

Amid grousing from city lawmakers about the delay of the housing, Masyr contended delaying the housing is essential to responsibly developing the area.

“To put some amount of housing in Willets now we think would be inappropriate,” he said. “There is no community there, there is no service there, we think development needs to occur organically and doesn’t get dropped from a helicopter.”

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

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