By Benjamin Haber
Prior to 2008 there were many small businesses in Willets Point Queens, primarily rendering automotive services for the public at a cost far less expensive than at automotive dealers. They were truly rendering an important service to the people of Queens.
More than 100 people were employed at the area, who in turn rendered support for thousands of their dependents.
The then mayor, Michael Bloomberg decided the Willets Point site as a blight and changes were in order. To the extent there was a blight, the fault lay not upon the small businesses in the area, but upon the Bloomberg and prior mayoral administrations, Queens borough presidents and many local elected officials, all of whom decided large real estate interests were their true constituents, and the little people be damned.
As an example, there were no sewers in the area despite the city collecting sewer taxes from the owners and no infrastructure maintenance even though the city collected real estate and other taxes.
A Willets Point plan was approved in 2008 that was clear and unambiguous. The city would acquire 62 acres in Willets Point through voluntary sale by the property owners or if need be through eminent domain.
A private developer would construct on the site upscale retail stores, office buildings, a convention center, a school, parkland, and luxury housing with a portion set aside for affordable housing. The affordable housing was an important linchpin of the plan.
A developer would be required to remove whatever contamination existed on a 23-acre portion. There was no mention of a 1.4 million square foot shopping mall at Citi Field or any connection to Citi Field.
Bloomberg promised the local community board it would have input in the developer selection process. He ignored that promise and selected the Mets ball club owners and their affiliates, Sterling Equities and Related Companies, multibillionaire real estate developers.
A convention center did not make any sense since there was already one in Manhattan. Many people believed what the developers really wanted was to construct a gambling center. That was never going to happen and the plan lay dormant for many years.
Ultimately, the developers claimed they could not afford to do the 2008 plan unless they were given permission to construct a 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall at the parking lot adjacent to the City Field stadium. They claimed they needed the money a mall would generate to accomplish Willets Point.
This hogwash from billionaires was absurd, and since the Citi Field parking lot was in fact on Flushing Meadows Corona Park land, litigation was instituted to prevent the mall, which required under the law state legislative approval and a full ULURP process.
The state Appellate Division, First Department, unanimously ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and blocked the mall. An appeal from that holding in now pending in the state Court of Appeals.
Consistent with public officials giving large real estate interests, the key to the city treasury, they agreed to give the developers the Willets Point property acquired by the city at a cost of tens of millions of dollars for $1 and subsidies running to over $100 million, postponing the development until 2025 and the right to walk away from the obligation to construct affordable housing by forfeiting $35 million, a pittance to these billionaires.
And walk away they will. The deal with the billionaires would make the infamous Boss Tweed tip his hat in admiration for this raid on the city treasury.
It is clear when all is said and done, the developers have no interest in the 2008 Willets Point Plan, just the shopping mall, and what many believe are soccer and hockey stadiums in the Willets Point site. In short, the 2008 Willets Point Plan after all these years of waiting is to be assassinated at the hands of billionaire real estate interests.
What is now troubling is the current Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who in her State of the Borough address appears to have decided to gut the 2008 Willets Point Plan and propose building hockey and soccer stadiums in the site. (Times Ledger, Feb. 3).
It is difficult to believe such a proposal suddenly blossomed in Katz’s mind. What is more likely is a connection between her and the Mets Ball Club ownership and their affiliated companies.
She is challenged to state whether she is aware that such stadiums are what the Mets ball club ownership and their affiliates really want and whether there has been any contact between her and the aforesaid companies regarding the subject.
Queens residents do not need a Meadowlands sports complex adjacent to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and there will be much opposition to Katz’s plan. At this point to abandon the Willets Point project so the Wilpons and their affiliates can add to their Mets ball club, hockey and soccer stadiums, is yet another example of hack politics at its worst.
What we really need is a borough president with enough intelligence to understand it is the people of Queens who are her constituents, and not fat cat real estate interests.
Benjamin M. Haber