Just days after the city made a show of starting sewer work at Willets Point, a state Supreme Court judge has decided to reopen a Willets Point United lawsuit that could halt the $3 billion mixed-use development project.
Last week’s groundbreaking ballyhooed the $50 million infrastructure work to build a sanitary sewer main and reconstruct a storm sewer and outfall in Willets Point. It is the precursor to the total project, which 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. But that plan may also be in jeopardy after Judge Joan Madden decided last week to reopen the WPU lawsuit “in the interests of justice.”
Her about-face was a result of the city’s decision to break up the project into three phases and say it didn’t need state approval for new ramps to the VanWyck Expressway for Phase 1. WPU contends that each phase requires the city to conduct a separate environmental impact study, which it has not done.
In addition, the city has said in the past it would not start condemnation proceedings until the ramps were approved.
In her ruling, Madden said: “As the city has now changed its position and is seeking to exercise its powers of eminent domain without approval of the ramps, in direct contradiction of its prior representations, and based on the significance of the ramps to the plan, I conclude that the integrity of the decision-making process has been impacted and sufficient reasons exist for me to consider vacating my prior judgment.”
WPU attorney Michael Gerrard said the decision “casts a large, dark cloud” over the development project. Gerrard added the ruling shows that the city “cannot run roughshod over the environmental laws and over the rights of the businesses that are struggling to survive.”
A court date of Jan. 27 for a conference with both sides has been set by Madden. But city officials claim the judge will wait for the decision from the appeals court for further guidance and oral arguments before the appellate court have not yet been scheduled.
Although no developer has been selected by the city yet, the Economic Development Corp. indicated that proposals are under review and a developer is expected to be selected in early 2012. Work is scheduled to start a year later and the entire project to estimated to take 10 years.
The EDC issued the following statement on the latest court decision: “The Willets Point project is overwhelmingly supported by elected officials and the community and will transform this blighted and underutilized area into a vibrant neighborhood where thousands of New Yorkers will live and work. We are confident that the environmental review was properly conducted, and the project is proceeding as planned.”
Phase 1 calls for 400 housing units, a hotel, stores, two acres of open space and parking. It will comprise 20 acres across from Citi Field on 126th Street
The other two other phases call for building a school and a small convention center.
The city says it has acquired 90 percent of the properties in the Phase 1 area with nine holdouts. Businesses in that area will be relocated in the second half of 2012.
WPU also indicated that the groundbreaking for the sewer work was premature. The group, made up of business and land- owners in the Iron Triangle, believes the city does not have the necessary state permits to begin and may not get them since 1,800 Hispanic workers would be displaced, and the project guidelines say it cannot have a serious impact on minorities.
But the city denies the charges, saying it has all necessary permits.