CB 7 committee rejects Willets Project ahead of full board vote

CB 7 committee rejects Willets Project ahead of full board vote
Rendering courtesy Michael Bloomberg
By Joe Anuta

Community Board 7 was set to vote on the Willets Point redevelopment plan Monday night, several days after a subcommittee rejected the $3 billion proposal.

Last week, the board’s Land Use Committee voted 7-2 to turn down the project.

Chairman Gene Kelty indicated he typically likes to vote yes on projects and attach conditions in order to advance the board’s wishes through the city’s land use process. But he had too many reservations about the current proposal, which includes a 1.4 million square foot mall.

“I just can’t vote for this one,” he said May 8. “This is the one time I have to say ‘no.’”

The Queens Development Group, consisting of a joint venture between Related Cos. and Sterling Equities, the real estate arm of the New York Mets, is seeking city approval to build a temporary parking lot in Willets Point as part of a two-phase project. The team proposes to first clean toxic soil on 23 acres of Willets Point, then build the lot and construct the 32-acre mall along with more retail and a hotel along 126th Street. The second phase of the project, which would include housing, more retail and a school, would kick off in 2024 — provided the city builds new exit ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway, which it is not contractually obligated to do, but has repeatedly pledged its commitment to carrying out.

The committee has hosted several marathon meetings with a cadre of joint venture representatives, lobbyists, the city Economic Development Corp., the Office of the Mayor and other city agencies, which fielded a litany of questions from board members.

The board’s vote is advisory, and the project next moves on to Borough President Helen Marshall before landing at the City Planning Commission. The commission has the option to nix the application, but otherwise it will move on to the City Council.

At last week’s meeting, board member Joe Sweeney put forth a motion to approve the plan on the condition that the developers undertake traffic improvements before beginning any construction. He was one of two members to vote in favor.

But Kim Ohanian said the project was too vast and raised too many questions that the board did not have time to address. Similar proposals typically make it out of the board with a laundry list of conditions, she said, yet the board only had one and it was nearing midnight during the final scheduled meeting before the entire board was set to vote.

“I think the community deserves better,” she said. “I can’t do this.”

CB 7 Vice Chairman Chuck Apelian said that regardless of the vote, he wanted to have a dialogue with the joint venture and the Bloomberg administration.

The committee seemed to leave the door open to further action, agreeing that they might possibly convene before the board’s scheduled 7 p.m. meeting Monday.

“A lot can happen between now and then,” he said.

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