Avella, park advocates appeal Willets megamall case

By Madina Toure

State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and park advocates say they are hopeful after a panel of judges heard arguments last week in the case of a proposed megamall on the former site of Shea Stadium.

The appeal filed by Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), City Club of New York, Queens Civic Congress, several members of Willets Point United and nearby residents and business owners against the Willets West mega-mall proposal was argued before the state Appellate Division.

The Willets West mall project is part of the Queens Development Group’s $3 billion redevelopment of Willets Point into a new neighborhood with commercial, retail and residential space.

The consensus among the plaintiffs was that the justices — Angela M. Mazzarelli, Dianne T. Renwick, Sallie Manzanet-Daniels and Darcel D. Clark — appeared to be more understanding of their argument against the city and the developers compared to Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Manuel Mendez, who voted down the lawsuit they filed last February.

Plaintiffs argued the project needed approval from the state Legislature because the site of the proposed shopping mall sits on a northern section of the park.

At the end of August, Mendez dismissed the lawsuit, ruling the plans would “result in the public benefit of removal of urban blight.”

One of the plaintiffs, Irene Prestigiacomo, a member of Willets Point United and a private property owner in Willets Point for the past 26 years, said she was surprised that the four judges were all women, including two minorities.

“They’re seeing beyond the glitz of the people that are being put in front of them, to try to barrage them with facts and influence them,” Prestigiacomo said. “These women have worked hard to get where they are and that gives me hope because they understand and they have a different value system+6.”

John Low-Beer, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the judges appeared to have an understanding of their complaints.

“Based on the questions they asked, I’m hopeful that they will decide it our way,” Low-Beer said.

Avella called the developers’ argument “ludicrous.”

“It has as its basis the rule of law that any time you want to develop a piece of property, there are rules you have to follow,” he said.

The site of the proposed mall was previously the site of the New York Mets’ Shea Stadium from 1964 to 2009, when it was demolished and became a parking lot for Citi Field. But the plaintiffs argued the area was still mapped as parkland. Citi Field rents out the space for special recreation activities.

The state Legislature approved the building of Shea Stadium in 1961 with a provision for parking, but the plaintiffs insist that the statute could not apply to the new megamall.

Ben Haber, an activist for the park who was also a plaintiff in the case, said the case demonstrates a lack of transparency in government.

“They can see the parking lot is on park property,” Haber said. “It’s part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park … I don’t think that’s how government works and I think the court is going to see it that way.”

A spokesman for the Queens Development Group said the plan will help redevelop the area.

“Stakeholders from the City Council to civic groups to labor organizations and others believe this plan is our best shot at rejuvenating a community that has long been neglected,” the spokesman said in a statement. “We are hopeful that the Court will agree so we can get to work on implementing this $3 billion investment and creating New York’s next great neighborhood.” The city Law Department said it supports the initial decision on the case.

“We believe the lower court correctly upheld the city’s authority regarding the retail and entertainment center,” a law department spokeswoman said.

Reach reporter Madina Toure by e-mail at mtour[email protected]local.com or by phone at (718) 260–4566.

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