Parking permit is crux of Willets Point redux

By Joe Anuta

The city Economic Development Corp. was back in City Hall this week pushing a new Willets Point redevelopment plan years after the original was approved by the City Council, but the developers could have avoided the latest legislative process by tweaking the proposal’s timetable.

A joint venture composed of Related Cos. and Sterling Equities, the real estate arm of the New York Mets, testified at a subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises hearing Tuesday along with members of the EDC. The companies are specifically seeking the Council’s permission to site about 3,000 parking spaces on a temporary lot in Willets Point as part of the $3 billion project. The parking spaces will later be relocated to several new parking garages.

The subcommittee did not vote Tuesday and the full Council has until early October to vote on whether or not to grant the permit.

But simply building those parking garages at the outset would be permissible under the Council’s 2008 decision and take care of the parking problem. So why go through the trouble of getting a permit for the lot?

The developers and the opposition have different explanations.

The partnership contends this sequencing is essential to ensure the entire vision can be realized. They have repeatedly said the only way to develop Willets Point according to the 2008 plan was to create an economic engine to drive the project, namely the 1.4 million square foot retail and entertainment complex proposed for the west of Citi Field.

“We believe strongly that the project makes economic sense,” said Jesse Masyr, land-use counsel to the partnership.

Basically, the joint venture needs to have the mall and a proposed retail strip along 126th Street up and running to not only offset other costs of the project, but to create a destination to make the housing component more attractive.

Building all three proposed garages at the outset would upset that economic blueprint, Masyr said.

The $3 billion development is slated to proceed in three phases. First, the joint venture will raze the auto shops and junk yards that populate the area east of Citi Field and clean the toxic soil there. They will then build a hotel and retail along 126th Street, construct the mall in the western parking lot of the stadium and transfer those lost spaces to a paved, temporary lot behind 126th Street.

After the city is scheduled to construct ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway in 2024, the partnership will tear up the temporary lot, build 2,500 units of housing, retail and a school and move the 3,000 spaces once more to a series of garages on the southern edge of Roosevelt Avenue across from Citi Field.

But opponents have long contended that the city and developers only want the mall and do not want to build the housing, which includes 875 affordable units.

The partnership would be required to pay a $35 million penalty for not building the housing, contracts show, but the city is also not contractually obligated to build the ramps. If the ramps never get built, then the joint venture is off the hook.

By obtaining this current permit, they will have made the parking lot legal, which would not have been permissible under the special zoning written in 2008. According to Iron Triangle property owners, this is all part of the plan.

“Mark my words: No housing is ever going to be built,” said Jerry Antonacci, a member of opposition group Willets Point United, who spoke in an informational video about the project and testified at City Hall Tuesday.

The city and Masyr contend all parties are completely committed to the development as a whole, which needs to happen to net the desired return, including benefits to the city like revenues from property taxes and income taxes.

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