Willets Point megamall has its day in court

Willets Point megamall has its day in court
Photo by Michael Shain
By Gina Martinez

The ongoing litigation over the use of parkland for the Willets Point mega-mall project is now in appeals court.

Oral arguments took place at the New York State Court of Appeals in White Plains. Queens Development Group is fighting to build a proposed mega mall and movie theater on the 30-acre site where Shea Stadium once was.

The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court in February 2014 by state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) — along with the City Club of New York, Queens Civic Congress, members of Willets Point United and nearby residents and business owners — challenges the transfer of Queens parkland worth about $1 billion.

The lawsuit focuses on the proper use of the land. The mega-mall is slated to be built on the parking lot east of Citi Field, which is technically still parkland belonging to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and under lease to the New York Mets. Arguments centered around a 1961 law allowing the construction of Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows Park. A panel of judges will decide whether the public land can be used for private profit.

Queens Development Group lawyers argued that the proposed project would have public benefits that include public spaces and free attractions, the Daily News reported.

But Justice Eugene Fahey was not convinced, the newspaper said.

“The primary purpose of this activity is a private purpose: to lease space and set up a shopping mall so people will spend money in the context of going to a sports event,” Fahey said. “Aren’t we required … that this particular development be approved by the Legislature?”

Lawyers for the mega-mallargued that the mall and the movie theater will give the public access to open space, as well as a rooftop garden.

“But those public benefits didn’t override the project’s overall purpose, which seemed to conflict with the law’s original intent to allow a ballpark in the park,” Fahey said. “We can clearly see the economic viability of the project. The law was aiming to provide a home for the Mets . . . now how far can you go askew of that?”

Avella attended the hearing and was disappointed, saying it was hard for him to sit in the courtroom and listen to lawyers argue for a project that residents are against.

“Words cannot express how painful it was to sit in the courtroom today and listen to the city and attorney general’s counsel supporting a developer’s proposal to give away parkland for a mega-mall,” he said. “It is absolutely disgraceful of the city and state officials, who are supposed to represent the people and protect parkland, be complicit in the developer’s proposed heist of public land.”

The de Blasio administration stands behind the developers after initially being against the mega-mall project because it would not create affordable housing fast enough.

“From the get-go, we’ve continued to push the development team to accelerate the delivery of affordable housing,” a representative from the mayor’s office said in a statement. “The city joined the appeal as an act of good faith as part of those talks, and to defend the broader city land use rules, which were not at issue in the earlier decision, but were likely to arise once an appeal was heard.”

A decision is not expected to be made for months.

Reach Gina Martinez by e-mail at gmart[email protected]cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4566.