Protesters stage rally vs. Willets megamall

By Alex Robinson

Opponents of a plan to build a megamall on parkland adjacent to Citi Field held a rally last weekend on Roosevelt Avenue to reinforce their disapproval of the project.

Queens civic leaders, park advocates and activists joined state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) to decry the plan, which is part of a $3 billion redevelopment of Willets Point by developers Related Cos. and Sterling Equities, who make up the Queens Development Group.

“Parkland is sacred. It’s the responsibility of every municipality and elected official to preserve parkland not only for the people who use it currently, but for future generations,” Avella told reporters at a spot on Roosevelt Avenue overlooking Citi Field and the site of the proposed mall. “The fact we have to be here today to protest taking away parkland for a megamall is disgraceful.”

Avella, along with a number of community leaders and park advocates who attended the rally, filed a lawsuit last month against the city and developers, challenging the legality of building the megamall on land designated as parkland without the consent of the state Legislature.

The location of the proposed mall is currently a parking lot that was previously the site of the New York Mets’ Shea Stadium from 1964-2009 before it was demolished. Even though the area is now a parking lot, the lawsuit’s plaintiffs contend the area is still mapped as parkland, according to city maps, and is still used for recreational purposes.

Any alienation of parkland would require the state Legislature’s approval and the replacement of that parkland elsewhere, protesters said.

“The city has violated city and state law to give the owners of this megamall a $100 million gift in the expense of everyone who uses parkland in the city of New York,” Avella said.

The site’s developers contend that 1961 legislation that approved the building of Shea Stadium with a provision for parking allows them to build the shopping center on the same location.

“The weekend rally was an unfortunate attempt to obstruct a transformative neighborhood redevelopment from moving forward,” a spokesman for Queens Development Group said. “This project will clean up a site that has been contaminated for generations and create thousands of jobs while providing the surrounding communities with amenities that will contribute to the area’s bright future. State legislation signed into law over 50 years ago makes it very clear that this project can move forward.”

Opponents of the project, however, said the 1961 exception only applied to construction associated with the building of Shea Stadium.

“Protecting our parkland is critical to the health of our surrounding neighborhoods of Corona and Flushing,” said Paul Graziano, an urban planner and founder of Save Flushing Meadows Corona Park. “These neighborhoods have very little open space and Flushing Meadows Corona Park is the only place they have to have any kind of recreation whatsoever.”

Protesters also voiced concerns the megamall might be detrimental to the survival of small businesses in the surrounding area and called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to stop the project from happening.

“I cannot think of a more disgraceful act,” Avella said. “We will fight till the bitter end to stop the city from doing this.”

Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at arobinson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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