Queens Assemblyman Lobs Bill to Help Mets Owner’s Casino Swing

Citi Field’s empty parking on a blustery winter day in January. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

This article was originally published on by THE CITY

A state lawmaker introduced a bill Wednesday that would authorize New York City to build on the parking lot at Citi Field, which would help pave the way for redevelopment plans envisioned by Mets owner Steve Cohen that include a new casino.

The legislation introduced by Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Queens) calls for the parking lot to be developed for “a gaming facility and, in conjunction with such facility, commercial, retail, entertainment, recreational, hotel, convention, and or community facility uses,” according to the bill text.

Because the Citi Field lot is technically parkland, designated in 1939 as part of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, it requires state intervention to “alienate” it to facilitate construction.

Aubry’s bill specifies that the land be discontinued as parkland “through the entering of leases or other agreements with New Green Willets, LLC, its affiliates, or any other entity or entities,” referencing the lobbying firm owned by Cohen. As part of what’s known as “park alienation,” the city would have to find at least 20 acres of replacement parkland or significantly improve other existing greenspace — paid for by the private developer, according to the legislation.

The Long Game

Cohen has pushed for redevelopment of the Citi Field parking lot, which is owned by the city and leased to the Mets, since shortly after buying the team for $2.4 billion in November 2020.

In the past few months he has hosted “visioning sessions” with locals and community leaders to get feedback on what Queens residents — and Mets fans across the city — would like to see in the area.

Aubry, who did not immediately respond to a call and text message seeking comment, previously told THE CITY that he had spoken many times with Cohen’s lobbying firm, New Green Willets, about their ideas for the parking lot. He said he was most concerned with creating jobs and recreational activities for his district, which includes Corona and East Elmhurst.

“They have talked to me about it a number of times,” he told THE CITY in January. “The casino in my mind is important to them — not so important to me.”

State Sen. Jessica Ramos, a Democrat who also represents the neighborhood, said she was blindsided by the legislation — a version of which she had planned on introducing.

“I was taken aback this morning, it was quite a surprise to see legislation submitted,” she told THE CITY, adding that any park alienation would require her sign-on in a jointly-introduced bill.

Ramos said she had not had the chance to read Aubry’s legislation yet.

“Not only do I have some reading to do but I also have some conversations to be had,” she added.

Area City Councilmember Francisco Moya, who also plays a crucial role in this land-use change, did not respond to calls and a text message seeking comment.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio, Mets owner Steve Cohen and Mr. and Mrs. Met, February 10, 2021.
Former Mayor Bill de Blasio, Mets owner Steve Cohen and Mr. and Mrs. Met, February 10, 2021. | Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Moya, Aubry and Ramos are all tasked with appointing one member each to a six-person advisory board — along with Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, the mayor, and the governor — to further approve any casino development.

Richards told THE CITY that he was “encouraged to see this legislative process beginning … but the most critical facet of this and any proposal for wide-scale development in Queens will continue to be community engagement, community feedback and community benefits.”

Cohen and his team have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying local politicians for the development plan. He, his family and their associates have also doled out mounds of cash to several key elected officials’ election campaigns.

His wife, Alexandra Cohen, gave $117,300 to the state’s Democratic Committee last year, and the in-house lobbyist of New Green Willets and a top aide, Michael Sullivan, gave nearly $35,000 to local elected officials. That includes $9,400 to Aubry, and $5,000 to Ramos and State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria).

A previous effort to develop the parking lot by the Queens Development Group — made up of the former Mets owners, the Wilpons, Saul Katz, and the Related Group — was struck derailed by the state court of appeals in 2017. The team had hoped to build a mall on a parking lot and develop of parts of Willets Point.

More Than Just Asphalt

The Assembly bill is still in its infancy, and requires both State Senate co-sponsoring and then land-use decisions on the city level.

Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue told THE CITY that she was “aware” of the Mets’ hopes for development “but I’m not aware of this legislation.” Citi Field operates on a lease agreement with the Parks Department, who own and operate Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

A spokesperson for Cohen told THE CITY that “the local community and Mets fans have told us emphatically that they want more from the 50 acres of asphalt around Citi Field.”

“Steve Cohen and his team are committed to delivering a vision with dedicated green space, year-round entertainment and good-paying local jobs,” the spokesperson, Maria Comella, said.

“We are supportive of efforts to create a process that does this the right way and makes it possible to expand use of the area beyond just parking lots.”

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