Willets Point business owners who refuse to leave the area are cheering the decision announced last week by the city that it will no longer use eminent domain to remove them.
The Mayor’s Office told the court it was dropping the condemnation process shortly before a case was to be heard in state Appellate Court filed by members of Willets Point United.
WPU attorney Michael Rikon said Wednesday the group claims full victory. “It is really unusual and rare to have this kind of victory,” Rikon said. “And we will be asking for reimbursement for legal fees, about $600,000.”
The city owns about 90 percent of the property needed to begin work in the 62-acre site also known as the Iron Triangle. Mayor Bloomberg announced in 2007 plans to convert the neglected area into a $3 billion mixed-use development including housing, a school, a hotel, a small convention center and retail space.
The plan was approved by the City Council in 2008, but a changing economic climate and opposition from business and property owners in Willets Point led to little progress on the project. Last year, the city divided the plan into three phases to make it more palatable to potential developers, who will also have to clean up the area and add seven feet of fill.
Phase 1 called for the construction of 400 apartments, a hotel and retail space on 20 acres closest to Citi Field on 126th Street.
But last week, the city leaked information on potential developers to certain news media, while at the same time announcing plans to withdraw the eminent domain plans.
Rikon said it was an attempt by the city to downplay the condemnation change. “The city knew it was going to lose the case,” Rikon said. “There was no way to win.”
Although he admitted it is very unusual to win an eminent domain case, in this instance Rikon said the city made several mistakes. He noted that the city did not give proper notice of public hearings on condemnation, but the “most outrageous” was that the city at a public hearing failed to have an interpreter for the 150 Hispanic business owners at Willets Point.
“The disrespect shown was unbelievable,” Rikon added.
The attorney does not expect the city to pursue eminent domain in the future at Willets Point, with the existing businesses to become nonconforming uses. “The city can go for eminent domain in the future, but anything they do has to totally start over with hearings and reviews,” which are expensive and time consuming, he said.
According to published reports, the city is expected to announce later this month that the Related Companies and Sterling Equities will develop Phase 1, which has been reduced to 12 acres.
The Manhattan-based Related is developing the Hudson Yards project on the West Side and a 950-unit middle-income housing development in Long Island City. Sterling Equities is a real estate firm controlled by the owners of the Mets.
It is expected that the new plan will require zoning changes and a new environmental impact study, followed by City Council approval. The project is expected to be delayed up to four years.
Rikon said the city will seek a zoning change to allow for a shopping mall and additional parking for Citi Field, which is what some WPU members had claimed for years was the real reason for the development project, not housing or a school. “You cannot use a pretext to develop a private project” under eminent domain, Rikon said.
Although WPU members are keeping an unusually low profile following the city’s retreat, they issued the following statement:
“This is a great day for property rights in New York and it’s a great day for the Army of Davids who have fought long and hard to prevent the ugly ogre from destroying their lives. Hats off to the property owners, the tenant businesses and the thousands of workers that the city was prepared to discard into the garbage in pursuit of its real estate Holy Grail.”
The city, however, is putting a positive spin on the changes. “We’re very close to having a deal in place that will transform Willet Point into New York City’s next great neighborhood and continue the historic progress we’ve already made there,” said Julie Wood of the Mayor’s Office. “Today’s action ensures that our plan will comply with the site’s myriad technical and legal requirements.”
Meanwhile, the WPU continues to challenge the city over its plans to build new ramps on the Van Wyck Expressway that members say would overburden the area with 80,000 additional vehicles a day the project is expected to generate.
The Willets Point area is filled with car junkyards and parts stores. The city never put in sewers or sidewalks or made improvements to the streets. Nevertheless, the city called the area blighted in announcing plans for the redevelopment.