Housing advocates, state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods chanted “What do we want? Affordable housing!” across the street from Citi Field on Friday, decrying what they considered a lackluster push for it in Willets Point and calling for a new agreement between the city and the development group selected to rejuvenate the Iron Triangle.
“If they put a wrecking ball to 2,000 units of affordable housing to make room for a shopping mall, it would be front-page news and there would be no end to the outrage,” Peralta said. “That’s exactly what’s happening here. It’s just as outrageous. It’s just as unacceptable.”
At the heart of the protest-press conference hybrid was the contract signed between the city’s Economic Development Corporation and a partnership between the Related Companies and Sterling Equities, called the Queens Development Group, which puts the creation of the 1.4-million-square-foot mall ahead of what at one point was 1,920 units of affordable housing.
The contract between the EDC and the QDG outlining the first phase of the redevelopment of Willets Point puts the creation of affordable housing last on the to-do list, after the creation of a mall and entertainment space, and ramps leading onto and off the Van Wyck Expressway.
The contract releases the developer from building the 875 units of affordable housing slated for the first, 23-acre phase of the redevelopment in two ways: if the city doesn’t build the Van Wyck ramps by 2025, or if the developer pays a $35 million fine.
“Neither party is ever legally obligated to build a single unit of affordable housing,” said Ivan Contreras, a community organizer with the Queens Housing Coalition. “They can walk away from the project leaving the community with a mall, a hotel, a retail center and a parking lot and not building a unit of housing.”
An EDC spokesman said the agency “remains committed as ever to ensuring affordable housing is built,” adding the city is looking to secure funding for the construction of the ramps ahead of time.
Peralta called upon the city and the developer to “come back to the bargaining table” and iron out a deal that puts affordable housing on the front burner.
The redevelopment of Willets Point has been at the heart of a number of contentious hearings around the borough, strife that predates Community Board 7’s recent approval of the plan, promptly followed by Community Board 3’s near-unanimous disapproval of the project.
The redevelopment as currently proposed varies from the version approved by the City Council in 2008 in numerous ways, with the addition of the mall and segmentation of the development into phases.
The original deal, brokered by then-Councilman Hiram Monserrate, was a one-shot redevelopment of all 62 acres of Willets Point, which included nearly 2,000 units of affordable housing.
Lawmakers who presented themselves as proponents of the redevelopment echoed concerns that the city has abandoned its original affordable housing plans.
Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) said in a statement affordable housing “has always remained my priority.”
The Queens Development Group has contended the construction of a mall on what is currently the Citi Field parking lot will provide the economic engine and enticement needed to make the buildout of the rest of Willets Point commercially and fiscally sensible.
Peralta denied the claim, saying, “You don’t need a mall to make it more desirable.” The lawmaker asserted the original deal needs to be revived.
“Let’s hold everyone to their word and provide the affordable housing this community so desperately needs,” he said. “That way, in a few years, instead of a New York City mayor coming into this community to complain about a Census undercount, the visit will be to tout this area as a model of mixed-use development where everyone has a dignified place to live.”