Protesters Blast ‘Willets West’ Developer Deal
City parkland near Citi Field should not be given away to developers, protesters charged during a demonstration near the Flushing ballpark last Saturday morning, Mar. 22.
Organized by State Sen. Tony Avella, scores of residents and community activists participated in the rally supporting a lawsuit the senator filed last month seeking to stop the “Willets West” project- which would create the city’s largest shopping and entertainment center- in its tracks.
Willets West would be erected over 47 acres of Flushing Meadows- Corona Park adjacent to Citi Field, which presently serves as the ballpark’s parking lot. The site also includes the footprint of the former Shea Stadium.
During the Bloomberg administration, according to Avella, the city agreed to sell the land for one dollar to the Queens Development Group-a venture of Related Companies and Sterling Equities- the primary backer of the Willets Point redevelopment. Sterling Equities also owns the New York Mets.
Last Saturday’s rally began with protesters meeting at the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 114th Street, then walking east to a location outside of Citi Field. They chanted that city parks were not for sale and held up signs calling for “No Mall on Parkland” and stating “The Mets got the Goldmine, NYC Taxpayers Got the Shaft.”
Avella along with local residents, small business owners, parks and community advocates and civic groups panned the Willets West proposal and called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to overturn his predecessor’s development deal.
“This was a true Bloomberg era back-door policy which slipped under the radar and had virtually no community input,” Avella said. “How can we allow such a blatant parks land grab? And without any required review or oversight. The city should be ashamed for allowing this to pass despite stern and outspoken community opposition.”
Geoffrey Croft of Parks Advocates described the deal as “an abuse of power.”
“No official vote from anyone except the [former] mayor who gifted our public park away to one of the city’s most successful developers,” he added. “This is public parkland; this is not a dispute. It does not belong to Bloomberg or the developers. It belongs to the people of the City of New York and it must be protected.”
Richard Hellenbrecht, president of the Queens Civic Congress, stated the proposal “is yet another gross overreach of the former Bloomberg administration.”
“The mall will not only remove public space that is used for numerous events like circuses and disabled sports, but would create competition to nearby malls and especially harm local mom-and-pop stores already struggling to stay in business.”
Paul Graziano, co-founder of Save Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, said the project “represents everything wrong about development in New York City.
“While this particular part of the park is used for parking, it is also used for many other park purposes during the year,” he said. “The city should be spending money helping Roosevelt Avenue merchants revitalize their commercial district, rather than giving away a piece of our public parkland valued at over $1 billion.”
Avella’s lawsuit, if approved by the courts, would invalidate prior approvals of the Willets West project and other aspects of the Willets Point redevelopment plan. The plaintiffs also seek a permanent injunction against the construction of a mall on city parkland without the proposal going through the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) and special state legislation authorizing the sale of parkland.
“By allowing developers to build a mega-mall at this location, the city will also take away countless jobs, as they have already started doing at the nearby Iron Triangle with respect to auto shop tenants and cause a tremendous burden on the local mom-and-pop stores in the area,” Avella said. “Parks is simply not for sale.”
The Willets West project, as previously described, will feature a 1 million sq. ft. retail and entertainment center with over 200 retail stores, movie theaters, restaurants, entertainment venues and public spaces for year-round programming. There will also be a parking structure and surface parking for 2,500 vehicles.
Announced in 2012, Willets West is the newest component of the Willets Point redevelopment plan launched by the Bloomberg administration to clean up industrial areas generally bound by 126th Street, Roosevelt Avenue, Northern Boulevard and the Flushing River for the construction of new retail businesses and affordable housing.
This project came under controversy in recent years since it would force the displacement of various industries that have occupied the neighborhood for decades.
Combined development at Willets Point is expected to generate $1 billion in private investment and create thousands of construction and permanent jobs.