Willets Pt. ramps not set in stone

Willets Pt. ramps not set in stone
Rendering courtesy Michael Bloomberg
By Joe Anuta

The 1.4-million-square-foot mall proposed for the parking lot of Citi Field called Willets West is more like the Wild West in terms of zoning regulations, Community Board 7 learned last week at a meeting where many details of the $3 billion Willets Point redevelopment project were revealed.

A delegation from the city Economic Development Corp. also told board members that there is no contractual requirement for new ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway and that the Queens Development Group, composed of Sterling Equities and Related Cos., have a first shot at building the third phase of the project, which has not yet gone out to bid.

A partnership between Related and Sterling, the company whose principals also control the New York Mets, won a bid last year to develop part of a 62-acre project designed to transform the junk yards and auto shops of the Iron Triangle into a new mixed-use neighborhood.

The first phase includes replacing contaminated soil on the site before building a hotel and a strip of retail along 126th Street across from Citi Field. Then a temporary parking lot will be constructed in Willets Point to allow construction of the mall on the Mets’ lot. Housing, more retail and a school are in the second phase. The city has not selected a company to build the third phase.

The partnership is seeking city approval to build the interim parking lot in Willets Point during construction of the mall. The developers also need the green light for a proposal to host community recreational activities on the lot when patrons of the Mets are not parking there. The plans then call for the lot to be torn down to accommodate the housing component.

“We want to talk about zoning controls because there are none,” CB 7 Vice Chairman Chuck Apelian said at the meeting, referring to the mall site, which is mapped parkland.

The land is currently leased to the Mets, but converting its use to a mall would require a sublease involving the city Parks Department, the partnership and EDC.

The developers and the city said the zoning would be outlined in that sublease, and would closely resemble the commercial zoning outlined in the special Willets Point District.

“The density, use and square-footage will be controlled by the lease, so it is not a blank check by any stretch of the imagination,” said Jesse Masyr, a land use attorney for the Queens Development Group.

But the CB 7 board had a problem: The lease will be drawn up by Parks and EDC, according to city representatives, not the City Planning Commission, which typically oversees zoning.

The board and members of a group opposed to the development also questioned EDC about ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway that are required to build the housing in the second phase.

According to the partnership’s plan, those ramps are slated for construction by the city in 2021 and completion in 2024 and are estimated at $50 million in today’s dollars, but there is nothing in the contract stipulating they have to be built

“We take the city at their word that there is a strong commitment to do this,” said Glen Goldstein, president of Related Retail, echoing repeated statements by city officials that they are committed to building the ramps.

But another clause in the partnership’s contract with the city states that the Queens Development Group has the option to fund construction of the ramps on its own at any time, Gerald Antonacci, of the opposition group Willets Point United, pointed out.

In a video released on his group’s website, Antonacci predicted that housing would never get built, a claim the city denies.

If the developers follow through with the proposed plan, the Queens Development Group will get a crack at the last, roughly 40-acre phase of the project, which will feature more mixed-use buildings and possibly a convention center, although it was unclear exactly what sort of advantage the partnership would have.

“There is not a guaranteed right, but a limited right,” said a member of the EDC.

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