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Community upset over Willets West megamall appeal

The proposed megamall would be built on the Willets West portion of the neighborhood.
Photo courtesy of Queens Development Group
By Madina Toure

The city said it will continue to push for affordable housing at Willets Point regardless of the outcome of an appeal by the developer of a megamall that is part of the $3 billion project.

The Court of Appeals recently announced that it would hear an appeal by the developer, the Queens Development Group, in the megamall case after an appellate court ruled in July that the proposal could not proceed without state legislative approval because it would be built on parkland.

The city said that if the developer wins the appeal, it will have the project it intended to implement all along. But if the developer loses the appeal, the group may choose to pursue the project but in a different way and the city will work with the developer to reshape the megamall.

But if the developer decides the project cannot proceed without the megamall, the city would have to find another development team to move forward on the housing portion of the project.

“We are determining next steps,” Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in a statement. “The city will continue to work with all parties to expedite the new affordable housing at Willets Point East.”

The Willets West mall is part of the redevelopment of Willets Point into a new neighborhood with commercial, retail and residential space.

The megamall would be built on the Willets West site while the housing would go on the Willets East site.

“We are extremely gratified by the New York State Court of Appeal’s decision to hear our appeal, which brings us one step closer to completing this unprecedented, private $3 billion investment in Queens and reversing 100 years of pollution while creating thousands of good-paying jobs,” a spokesman for Queens Development Group said. “We are confident that when we make our case, the court will approve the bold vision that has already won support from the City Council, the local community board and many other stakeholders.”

In August, the city refused to join the developer’s appeal because the housing component of the project would not happen in a reasonable time frame. Work on the affordable housing component is now scheduled to start in 2025.

In February 2014, state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), along with the City Club of New York, Queens Civic Congress, Willets Point United and nearby residents and business owners, filed a lawsuit challenging the transfer of 47 acres of Queens parkland worth about $1 billion for the megamall adjacent to Citi Field.

Elected officials and community leaders said they were disappointed by the higher court’s decision to hear the appeal.

Avella, one of two City Council members who voted against the plan in 2008, said he could not comment on what the city or the developer will do if the developer loses the appeal, noting that it is “up to them.”

But he said that he and the other plaintiffs stand on strong legal ground and that the appellate court agreed.

“I think we stand on very good ground, considering the lower court, the appellate ourt, approved our suit unanimously,” he said.Richard Hellenbrecht, vice president of the Queens Civic Congress, said he is concerned that the developer will win the appeal after the decision appeared to be final.

He thinks the megamall was added to the project to cover the additional costs of remediation of toxic soil and the overall expense of the project.

“Even with the megamall, the developers were putting off the affordable housing components for another 20 years,” Hellenbrecht said. “That just tells you that there’s not sufficient funding in there to go ahead with the project.”

Reach reporter Madina Toure by e-mail at mtoure@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4566.

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