Willets plan begins review process

By Joe Anuta

The companies behind the Willets Point Redevelopment project hope to have a shovel in the ground by early next year following the city’s certification of their zoning application Monday.

The City Planning Commission greenlighted the public review process for the $3 billion mixed-use development, meaning the proposal will start wending its way through various levels of government scrutiny and, if ultimately approved, could lead to the start of construction by February next year, according to the developers.

“This is an important step because it begins the process of public review and is probably the single best hope for economic viability to fulfill the wishes of planning for Willets Point,” said Jesse Masyr, a land use attorney working for the Queens Development Group. “And it starts, most importantly, with the cleanup of 23 contaminated acres.”

The development group is comprised of real estate magnate Stephen Ross’ Related Cos. and the owners of the New York Mets’ development arm, Sterling Equities, a partnership which won a bidding process with the city last year.

The application will first head to Community Board 7, probably next month, then to the borough president’s desk before landing back at the City Planning Commission — all for an advisory opinion.

Then the developers project the application will be brought before the City Council in the fall, which will have the deciding say on whether to grant several zoning changes to the Willets Point Special District to allow the project to break ground.

The application already went though the public review process before it was approved by the City Council in 2008, but because several changes were made by the development partners in their winning proposal, including the addition of a 1.4 million-square-foot mall proposed for the Citi Field parking lot, which is technically parkland, the modified plan must go through the process again.

Michael Rikon is an environmental lawyer for Willets Point United, a group opposed to the project and the use of eminent domain — a process whereby the city takes land by legal edict for the public good.

Rikon, who disagrees with the city and a Supreme Court ruling that economic development projects like the Willets Point Redevelopment constitute a public good, said the review process will shape up to be contentious.

“Today’s announcement means we have another battle on our hands,” he said.

That fight is apparent in a document called an environmental impact statement posted online by the city Economic Development Corp., which shows 130 comments, mostly negative criticisms, that were raised at a public hearing and subsequent public comment period in the fall. The comments deal with issues including developing the project on parkland and traffic concerns, and each is paired with a response from the EDC, though the corporation only answered questions that dealt specifically with how the project would affect the environment, and declined to address many other gripes.

“This marks a critical step towards beginning the long-needed cleanup of toxic land in Willets Point that for years has damaged the waterfront and been a blight on the community,” EDC said in a statement. “Investing in infrastructure and laying the groundwork for private investment have been a signature of Mayor Bloomberg’s economic development strategy — bringing jobs and investment to all five boroughs.”

The development partnership rolled out a new website Monday, newwilletspointqueens.com, which associates the environmental cleanup and jobs with the project.

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