The future of the ambitious $3 billion Willets Point development plan is murky at best, now that the state Court of Appeals has blocked a proposed mega-mall on parkland.
At issue was whether the developers had the right to use Queens parkland worth about $1 billion for a retail enterprise to be built on a parking lot east of Citi Field. The court ruled 5-1 that the state Legislature must approve the deal since the lot sits on parkland. The city had transferred the 40-acre site to the developers, who include the Wilpon family, in exchange for $1.
It’s hard to associate parkland with Willets Point, a blighted area that was originally the Valley of the Ashes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “the Great Gatsby” and eventually became home to about 225 businesses — mostly auto repair shops operating under the shadow of the ballpark.
In the 1990s, Queens lawmakers had written off Willets Point, which still has no paved streets, lights or sewers, as a gathering spot for the mob. But then Hunter College in 2008 did a study that found Willets Point was a hub of economic activity where about 1,800 Spanish-speaking workers — many from nearby Corona — found legitimate work repairing cars.
A polluted wasteland, Willets Point caught former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s eye as one of the few spaces in the city where visionary planning could bring affordable housing, a public school, a convention center and commercial opportunities.
In 2008, the City Council approved the original Bloomberg plan, but by 2014, the affordable housing component had been pushed back to 2025 and the mega-mall suddenly appeared on the to-do list.
In 2014, state Sen. Tony Avella, one of two city councilmen who had not voted for the 2008 plan, led the legal charge against the mega-mall as a betrayal of the public trust. The Avella challenge was only the latest in a series of legal skirmishes at Willets Point. Some small shop owners were forced to relocate or close down, city marshals shuttered several auto-related businesses and the city promised some operators an indoor garage site in the Bronx.
Where are they now? Mechanics are working on the street outside Willets Point and in other Queens neighborhoods. The loss of jobs and impact on the economy has not been calculated.
The Bloomberg renewal plan was hijacked by the developers, who lost sight of one of the project’s key components: affordable housing as part of the first phase.
The developers may decide to appeal their case to the next level, but it’s too late.
A promise was broken and Queens now must aggressively chart the future of Willets Point with City Hall.