Amid accusations that it lacks transparency in its handling of the proposed Van Wyck Expressway ramps that are central to the Willets Point development project, the city Economic Development Corp. held a hearing at the Flushing Library on June 8 on a draft Environmental Assessment made in March.
The ramps would be built to accommodate the 80,000 daily car and truck trips that are expected to be generated by the project.
Chief among the detractors’ complaints is their claim that the EA has been prepared by the EDC’s own consultants without being subjected to any independent review.
The opposition is led by Willets Point United, a group of business owners in the area that want to stay. WPU has already filed two lawsuits against the city. One deals with eminent domain and the other the lack of a developer for the project, environmental concerns and other issues.
Brian Ketcham, a traffic engineer and consultant for WPU, said the EDC “continues to under-report project impacts by huge amounts. They low-ball the number of auto trips this project will generate. As their own analysis reveals, there is not capacity to accommodate all this traffic, not on local access roads, not on nearby expressways.
“EDC has attempted to conceal the true cumulative impact” of Willets Point and other new developments, Ketcham added. “At the very least, the EA should be rejected, corrected and put to the review of an entirely independent team of engineers and environmentalists.”
Jerry Antonacci, a Willets Point business owner who has been outspoken in his charges against the city, continued his attack. “We will fight this battle in the courts, where a blind person can see what you are up to and we will never waver, never give up,” Antonacci said. “Don’t say you weren’t warned.”
Among the elected officials who weighed in was Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), who said, “Willets Point needs to be developed in partnership with people who are already there.” Halloran described the city’s handling of the project as “downright un-American.”
Ben Haber, who has lived in the borough for over 80 years, said the highways are incapable of handling what will emanate from Willets Point. “There is a more sordid picture if we add the congestion that flows from the public use of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the Mets baseball games and the U.S. Tennis Association,” Haber said. “The significance of this is evident to all except myopic politicians.”
Haber added that it is OK to make arrangements for people to leave a sinking ship, “but it is meaningless if they are not provided a life- boat. What good is a Van Wyck Expressway ramp which leads to highways or a train station that is incapable of handling the volume of vehicular traffic?”
Joseph Ardizzone, the only remaining resident in Willets Point, who has lived there all his life said, “The history of this proposed project all but demands that the project now be subjected to the independent review that has been requested.”
Ardizzone cited “conflicting traffic reports” contained within various documents, although “the same EDC consultant is responsible for overseeing all three of those reports” as among the reasons the independent review is warranted.
He also said that state Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald is a former vice president of EDC, and she has neither recused herself from involvement with approving these ramps nor obtained a conflict of interest determination.
The project continues to have some supporters. In written testimony that was read at the meeting, Councilwoman Julissa Ferraras (D-East Elmhurst), deemed the project as “necessary” as Willets Point moves forward, claiming it would be “unfortunate to see opportunities fall through.”
Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-Bronx, Queens), similarly offered written testimony in which he lauded the mayor for “embracing a bold vision,” and said the project would, among other positive outcomes, create new jobs. It would be “a community benefit, not a burden,” he said.
Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council, said, that the project is a historic redevelopment effort that will transform an area previous generations have sought to change and improve. Ward suggested it would clean up the environment and improve the quality of nearby waterways, as well as “provide much needed affordable housing for working families. We hope that this serves as a model for future economic development projects.”
The city’s $3 billion mixed-use redevelopment plan calls for taking over the entire 62-acre area also known as the Iron Triangle that is bounded by 126th Street, Roosevelt Avenue, Northern Boulevard and the Van Wyck Expressway. Since some of the businesses do not want to leave, the city plans to use eminent domain proceedings to get them out.
The project is now scheduled to be carried out in three phases, although no developer has yet been selected by the city. Phase 1 involves 20 acres across from Citi Field on 126th Street and calls for building 5,500 apartments, retail space, a hotel and two acres of open space.
The city has acquired 90 percent of properties in the Phase 1 area. Businesses in that section will be contacted at the end of the year to discuss relocation.
WPU members contend the city is proceeding without state and federal approval for the additional ramps.
EDC maintains that Phase 1 does not need construction of the ramps, so approval can be deferred until a later date.
Now that the hearing has been held, the state DOT will have to decide whether to approve the ramps, followed by a ruling from the Federal Highway Administration on whether to require a full environmental impact statement. And finally, a decision will be made by the FHWA on the ramps.