By Benjamin M. Haber
If I were to describe the Willets Point matter (“Willets Revisited”—Aug. 28 editorial) as a municipal absurdity of unparalleled proportions, I would be overly generous. The basis of former Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to remove over 200 small businesses with over 1,000 of their employees from Willets Point, was that the area was a blight.
To the extent it was a blight, the mayor ignored the fact that the city caused it. Willets Point owners paid real estate and other taxes even though the city grossly failed in its duty to take care of the infrastructure. It was the height of chutzpah to seek to deprive over 1,000 men and women of their livelihood rather than curing the defects caused by the city’s malfeasance.
Notwithstanding the above, in accordance with due process the 2008 Willets Point plan was adopted. It made no mention of a shopping mall in the Citi Field parking lot and one of the linchpin aspects of the plan was that it would include affordable housing. Despite promising Community Board 7 it would have input in the developer selection process, Bloomberg reneged and handed the plan to the Mets ball club’s affiliates Related Companies and Sterling Equities, which thereafter made it clear that we were no longer dealing with a Willets Point plan as envisioned in 2008, but instead with a 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall at the Citi Field parking lot.
To accomplish that, the developers made the absurd claim they could not proceed with the the 2008 plan unless they first constructed the huge shopping mall at Citi Field. It was obvious all the developers cared about was a mall and not Willets Point.
They insisted there be included in the deal the right to postpone construction of affordable housing until 2015—some seven years after approval of the 2008 plan. To add insult to injury, the developers also had the right to walk away from constructing affordable housing by forfeiting $35 million, an amount which to these billionaires is akin to the tip we give the youngster who delivers our groceries, and walk away.
The answer to this absurdity is clear and simple. Since Related Companies and Sterling Equities were only interested in a mall, other developers should be invited to submit bids to accomplish the 2008 plan. Given the monetary sweetheart deal the city was giving to Related and Sterling Equities, I believe other developers would be eager to do the job without a mall.
It must be noted downtown Flushing and College Point are saturated with shopping areas. While we may need more affordable housing, we do not need more shopping areas. If the de Blasio administration is so concerned about the lack of affordable housing, it does not need real estate developers. The city itself has the wherewithal to convert the area into public or subsidized housing—something that was done in other parts of the city by previous administrations.
While I opposed the destruction of the many small businesses in Willets Point, the 2008 plan was adopted and unless altered by a new plan, it is still in effect. In that case. public or subsidized housing would be a sound resolution to Willets Point.
Mayor de Blasio has an opportunity to step up to the plate and hit a home run.
Benjamjn M. Haber