By Benjamin M. Haber
Good and responsible government does not exist in the absence of transparency and in particular when it involves land-use matters that have been notorious in favoring real estate interests and those with political connections.
A case in point is Willets Point. Notwithstanding that the city collected sewer rent when there were no sewers and collected real estate and other taxes and did not spend a nickel to repair the streets, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared the area a blight and sought to shut down hundreds of small businesses, depriving many workers and their dependents of a livelihood.
Notwithstanding a promise by Bloomberg that the community would have some say in the selection of a developer, he reneged and gave the job to the Mets’ Wilpons, Sterling Equities and Related Companies, as the Queens Development Group. The latter really had no interest at all in the 2008 Willets Point plan and really wanted a gambling casino.
When that failed, the plan remained dormant for many years until QDG came up with a new plan. It claimed it could not afford to construct the 2008 plan and that in order to do so, it needed permission to construct a 1.4-million-square-foot mega-mall on the Citi Field parking lot, generating enough money to construct the 2008 Willets Point plan.
Ignoring the speculation about whether a mall would in fact make money, and ignoring that the Citi Field parking lot was on Flushing Meadows Corona Park land, a myopic Bloomberg and City Council not only went along with the QDG plan but agreed that the Willets Point property, acquired by the city for hundreds of millions of dollars, would be sold to QDG for ONE DOLLAR. They also agreed to give subsidies of more than $100 million and a tax abatement of more than $40 million.
To add insult to injury, they agreed to make the mega-mall a priority; the 2008 plan was postponed until 2025, and the developers could walk away from constructing affordable housing by forfeiting $35 million, a pittance for these billionaires. This agreement was such a raid on the city treasury that it made the infamous Boss Tweed look like a mischievous youngster.
Litigation ensued, and the mega-mall plan was rejected by the New York State Court of Appeals. The matter then remained dormant until the current rumor that Mayor Bill de Blasio is considering handing over to QDG 23 acres of Willets Point property for ONE DOLLAR (“Willets Pointers blast Blaz,” Bayside Times, Jan. 5-11). If de Blasio does that, he then falls into the same snakepit as those legislators who made the outrageous deal to begin with.
The public should know that at no time did Bloomberg or the City Council question whether there was any truth to the QDG’s claim it could not afford to construct the 2008 plan or that it needed to pay only ONE DOLLAR for property, and seek to examine QDG’s books. Had they done so, they would have found that QDG had a portfolio of at least $20 billion consisting of many apartments, was in fact one of New York City’s largest landlords and owned thousands of rental units throughout the country. QDG does not qualify for welfare. Unless de Blasio wants to be known as a bedmate with real estate moguls and the little people be damned, he should reject the plan, get rid of QDG, give the original 2008 plan to another developer and earn the respect of the people.
Benjamin M. Haber