At a breakfast meeting of the Queens Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, the mayor confirmed the latest plan for Willets Point which some people are calling a sweetheart deal for the Mets.
In addition, Bloomberg announced a $500 million proposal by the U.S. Tennis Association to update its facilities in Flushing Meadows Park. [See separate story].
Although plans for Willets Point, also known as the Iron Triangle, were leaked last month, Bloomberg outlined a timeline at the Laguardia Marriott Hotel in East Elmhurst for development initially along 126th Street and eventually in the Citi Field parking lot. The first phase of the Willets Point development is expected to take up to 15 years.
“At Willets Point, where others have seen challenges, we have always seen enormous opportunities,” Bloomberg said. “I expect the project to be built.”
He indicated The Related Companies, a developer, and Sterling Equities, the real estate firm controlled by the owners of the Mets, will develop the 23 acres of Phase 1. The project, he said, will “activate significant acreage” on both sides of Citi Field to create “a true center of economic growth for Queens.”
Now home to auto repair shops and located across the street from Citi Field, plans call for transforming 126th Street into an area with a 200-room hotel, 30,000 square feet of retail space and restaurants and an interim 20-acre surface parking area that can be converted to recreational use when the Mets are not playing at home.
Following completion, the developers will erect “Willets West” on the existing Citi Field parking lot and turn it into a million- square-foot retail and entertainment center with more than 200 stores, movie theaters, restaurants, a parking structure and surface spaces for 2,500 cars.
This is the part of the project that has some in the community scratching their heads. Gene Kelty, chairman of Community Board 7, who attended the breakfast, said he isn’t sure of the plan’s legality. Citi Field and its parking lot sit on public parkland, and Kelty doesn’t think putting up a commercial shopping center is the proper usage.
Jack Friedman, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, who organized the breakfast at the mayor’s urging, thinks such a use of the parking lot could be alienation of parkland.
But Seth Pinsky, president of the city’s Economic Development Corp., said following the mayor’s speech that a 1961 agreement with the Mets allows for development.
Nevertheless, Kelty said, the plan “worries me” and he wants to see the 1961 agreement. In addition, he is concerned that the other three developers who sought the Willets Point contract were in a less favorable position with the city than the winner and could not compete with the Mets parking lot scheme. “The others didn’t get something special like the Mets,” Kelty added.
He also said that The Related Companies, which built the 20th Avenue shopping center in College Point, does not have a good record with the community. “The company does not take care of the local community,” Kelty said, pointing to the 10 years it took for the firm to agree to a cut-through on the property to alleviate traffic, one that it didn’t even have to pay for.
Once the proposed Willets West is complete, Bloomberg said, the city will go ahead with the federally approved construction of new Van Wyck Expressway access ramps.
Chuck Apelian, vice chairman of CB 7 who also attended, said he is concerned about lack of egress to the proposed shopping center. The site borders Northern Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue, which are already congested on game days.
He noted the plans call for a six-story parking structure on the north end of the Mets parking lot. “That means everyone will be exiting at one point after a game,” Apelian said. “It will have a huge impact.”
He added that when CB 7 approved the Willets Point plan in 2008, “this is not what we bargained for.”
Phase 1 work will conclude with constructing more retail space, offices, 2,500 housing units and a 280-room hotel in Willets Point. The starting date for the residential area is 2025.
Pinsky said he was assured that the city would prevail without resorting to eminent domain for the remaining businesses in Willets Point that do not want to leave.
Later Phase 1 work calls for erecting a small convention center, up to 5,500 housing units and a park, but there is no timetable set. Dropped from the original plans is construction of a public school in Willets Point.
Pinsky said vehemently that there are no plans to erect a casino at Willets Point.
But before any construction can begin, the city is required to conduct a new environmental review, amend the zoning, hold public hearings and get approval from the City Council. That could take three years.
Then the city will pay $100 million for demolition, remediation and other improvements before work can commence. Bloomberg said the city now has agreements with 95 percent of Willets Point landowners to complete Phase 1.
But some of the business owners, who are members of Willets Point United, do not want to leave or be relocated. One of those, Jerry Antonacci, whose family has owned Crown Carting for years, called the plan, “a sham from day 1, all for them ,” meaning the Mets.
“At the last hour, the citypulled out of eminent domain because if the judges found out about this plan, they would never have allowed eminent domain, and what a black eye that would have been,” Antonacci said. “That’s why the city must now pay the $1.1 million legal bill of WPU that we have forwarded to the courts.”
Michael Rikon, an attorney representing WPU, said Friday there are a number of problems with the mayor’s proposal, but the bottom line is “it’s not legal.”
He noted that the city does not have an assembled site, meaning it doesn’t own all the land, and “It won’t pass muster on the environmental review since the added traffic with the shopping center will be explosive. It’s horrendous to put in a mall there.”
He called the proposal “a gift of taxpayers’ money” to the Mets, adding that it’s illegal to build on public parkland.
Rikon expects WPU to file more lawsuits against the city over the latest proposal.
“Of course, the mayor will be out of office before the plan can start and a new mayor can drop the entire thing,” he added.