Willets Point was a debacle created by an outrageous municipal government that would make the infamous Boss Tweed a petty amateur. Listen carefully.
Prior to 2008, Willets Point housed hundreds of small businesses, many of which dealt with automotive repairs that could be had for far less money than at a dealership. It was helpful to the little people many of whom were residents of Queens. Hundreds of people were employed at the site supporting thousands of their dependents. It is true the area was in bad shape. There were no sewers and a complete lack of infrastructure repairs, notwithstanding the City collected sewer rent and other taxes. By any stretch of the imagination, the fault for the bad condition clearly rested upon an indifferent city government and not the small businesses in the area.
Michael Bloomberg, then Mayor of the City of New York, came up with a plan in which Willets Point was declared a blighted area, with all the small businesses to be removed and the area redeveloped. That the blight was caused by the City's failure in its duty to maintain the area's infrastructure ‒ and not the small businesses ‒ was ignored. In 2008, a plan was approved that indicated the area would house a variety of structures: a school, commercial space, housing (some affordable), a small park area, and a convention center. Since the area in question fell within the jurisdiction of Community Board 7, while they did not have the last say in the matter, they had the right to know what was contemplated and to express their views. Board 7 was assured by Mayor Bloomberg that it would be consulted about the designation of the developer for the plan. The Mayor reneged on his promise and a developer was selected without any input by Board 7. Therein the debacle commenced and continues to date.
The developer selected by Mayor Bloomberg, again without Board 7's knowledge, was a collection of billionaire real estate moguls known as Queens Development Group (QDG).
The groups consisted of the Related Companies and Sterling Equities, with the latter being owned and operated by the Wilpons, who coincidentally also own the New York Mets. Notwithstanding their knowledge of what the approved 2008 Plan consisted of, it turned out what they really had in mind was a gambling casino. When that failed, the matter remained dormant until QDG came up with a request that the 2008 Plan be amended to allow it to construct a parking lot on the site. That had no meaning for the approved 2008 Plan. It became apparent what they had in mind was that by having a parking lot in Willets Point, it would allow them to vacate the parking lot adjacent to Citi Field and on that vacant area they could construct a mega shopping mall of 1.4 million square feet. Lacking in transparency was the reason for the mall. These multi billionaires claimed they needed the mall to generate the money necessary to construct the 2008 Willets Point Plan. Apart from their billionaire status and the fact that they are the second largest real estate firm with about $41B in assets, whether a mall would be successful, and the amount of money earned, was speculative. I suspect what they really had in mind was, again, somewhere down the road, a gambling casino.
Accepting the claim that the 2008 Willets Point Plan could not be accomplished without the megamall, Bloomberg, together with a majority of the City Council, approved a plan that was such a raid on the city treasury, that if it had occurred in the old west, those City Council members who approved the plan would have justifiably been tarred and feathered and run out of town. Under the new plan, Willets Point property acquired by the City for tens of millions of dollars would be sold to the QDG billionaires for $1.00. That is correct ‒ just $1.00. The City would also contribute 99M taxpayer dollars and close to $40M in tax breaks. To add insult to injury, it was agreed upon that the megamall would be given priority with the 2008 Willets Point Plan postponed to 2025 ‒ 17 years from when the original plan was approved. The developers also had the right to walk away from any obligation to construct affordable housing by forfeiting $35M ‒ a pittance to them ‒ and it is likely that walk away they would.
Unwilling to play dead and accept the above, concerned residents determined the Citi Field parking lot was on land that was part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park and therefore a megamall could not be constructed on it without state legislative approval. QDG took the position that under the lease it had with the City ‒ notwithstanding a mall had no rational connection to a baseball stadium and its parking lot it ‒ they could build a megamall. Bloomberg, the City Council and the Attorney General of the State of New York all agreed with QDG. It became clear litigation was necessary to decide the issue. Several Queens residents agreed to participate in the litigation, and I was one of the plaintiffs. We were fortunate in having John R. Low-Beer as our attorney, who did an excellent job. A suit was instituted in the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. That court agreed with QDG and our lawsuit was dismissed. An appeal was taken to the New York State Appellate Division which ruled unanimously against QDG proceeding with the mall. QDG then sought permission from New York's highest court, The Court of Appeals, to proceed with an appeal to that court. It was granted, and ultimately the case was heard there before 6 judges. A ruling was rendered in which 5 judges agreed with the Appellate Division and one judge dissented. The megamall could not proceed. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but you can also fight and beat City Hall!
It has now been eleven years since the Willets Point Plan was approved in 2008, and nothing has been done. There is some indication a plan of a sort might be done on a small area of Willets Point, but nothing is clear as to that nor anything definite about the remaining 17 acres. There is even a rumor of a soccer stadium as a possibility. Throwing hundreds of businesses out of Willets Point, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars involved, would make a soccer stadium a continuing abomination. The time has come to recognize that far too many elected officials are in bed with real estate and sporting interests and QDG has been untruthful, remains untruthful and cannot be trusted. It must be replaced as a developer for Willets Point. A new designated developer should then proceed with the original 2008 Willets Point Plan with some changes. Anything less must be rejected.
The above may not happen, unless Queens residents make it clear to their City and State officials that they will hold them responsible for this debacle and they will not have their vote in any future election. It is important to keep in mind lazy voters are what keeps incompetent elected officials in office.
Mr.Haber's byline was inadvertently omitted from the print edition of the Berry. We apologize for the error.