A lot can change in five days.
Community Board 7 voted on Monday to approve the proposed Phase One redevelopment of Willets Point, including a controversial 1.4 million-square-foot shopping mall adjacent to Citi Field, after its Land Use Committee initially failed to approve the project.
The outcome flipped after the developer, city and CB 7 Land Use Committee chairman Chuck Apelian had several exchanges between Wednesday and Monday that produced written promises to attend quarterly meetings and mitigate the traffic impacts of the project.
“Today’s vote brings us one step closer to advancing the vision approved by the community in 2008 and cleaning up an area that has experienced a century of environmental contamination,” read a statement from the Queens Development Group, a fusion of Sterling Equities and The Related Companies, the duo picked by the city for the $3 billion project.
The planned mall/entertainment hybrid outside the bounds of the Iron Triangle, dubbed “Willets West,” was not part of the plan originally approved by the CB 7 and the City Council in 2008. Nor did that plan call for the phased-in implementation now deemed necessary by the city’s Economic Development Corp.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the community as we move ahead with transforming Willets Point through the largest private investment in the borough’s history,” the statement added.
The plan passed the full board by a 22-18 tally, but not before four Land Use Committee hearings that featured two attempts to approve the project, as well as a full board meeting that lasted four hours.
The developer and EDC did not set any commitments to the board in writing until after a motion to approve was initially shot down on May 8 by a 7-2 tally.
The Land Use Committee called a do-over on the project’s approval in a hastily convened meeting two hours before the full board’s vote.
The Land Use chairman, Apelian, said the committee was headed toward offering no recommendation on the project — uncommon and not ideal.
A veritable army of 17 suits comprised of attorneys, spokespeople and representatives for the developer and city loomed in the background as Apelian sat with his back to the public and press.
He told committee members he had several exchanges with the developer in the five days following the first failed vote, which produced a laundry list of what he termed “new commitments.”
The developer had agreed to meet with the community board every quarter and pay a $100,000 fine to the EDC if it doesn’t attend. It will also fund the implementation and study of further traffic mitigation work.
“Some of the stuff we talked about, we had questions, we now have answers,” Apelian said. “Now there’s more teeth to this.”
The commitments from the developer, however, did not go too far beyond promises already made in a supplemental environmental impact statement issued months ago. In fact, a majority of the bullet points in the document touted by Apelian and the developer are rehashes of requirements or promises already laced into the plan.
And the commitments did not include opposition concerns, including: the prioritization of affordable housing; the loss of parkland; the use of eminent domain; or the security of tenant businesses currently seeking to relocate from the Phase 1 area.
Still, a second committee vote flipped the outcome to 10-6. A motion to disapprove the plan was never proposed by any member of the committee.
Its passage paved the way for a vote approving what was technically a simple rezoning application. But for all intents and purposes the community board’s vote was the only ground-level input from unpaid community members. It now must move on to Borough Hall before possibly heading towards the City Council as it navigates the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.
The motion ultimately passed includes stipulations calling for road repair for the Willets Point streets outside of the Phase 1 area, the placement of Van Wyck Expressway on-and-off ramp funding in escrow and the expansion of computerized traffic signals in the Community Board 3 area.
CB 7 Chairman Gene Kelty was among the committee members who switched votes. Calling his initial vote “an angry one,” he said he re-evaluated the developer’s commitments and changed his mind.
“I now have two pieces of paper in front of me that I like,” he said. “They did not get off without my taking a pound of flesh off them.”
The redevelopment is the latest in several attempts to rejuvenate what has been portrayed as a highly contaminated vestige of the borough’s industrial era, with one board member calling it a “giant monster that nobody can get their arms around.” The developer tried to keep the remediation at the center of all discussions.
“A vote against this plan is a vote against cleaning up Willets Point,” said Ethan Goodman, an attorney for the developer.
But public speakers and some board members insisted the mall was at the heart of the vote.
The developer justified that addition as the only sort of economic engine that can transform Willets Point into a desirable neighborhood, while also generating the funding needed for remediation.
Aside from the mall, the first 23-acre phase of Willets Point’s redevelopment calls for the creation of retail, a hotel and commercial uses, as well as 2,500 housing units, 875 of which would be affordable, and an estimated 7,500 permanent jobs.
It will also include the creation of ramps connected to the Van Wyck Expressway meant to ease congestion on adjacent highways and local streets, though the contract between the city’s Economic Development Corporation and the Queens Development Group puts the onus for the ramps’ creation on the city.
Should the ramps never materialize, the developer would not be required to build the housing component of the project. And it can walk away from the 2,500 housing units if it pays a $35 million fine.
“The only thing we have here is a guarantee to build a mall,” said Ivan Contreras, a community organizer for the Queens Housing Coalition.
The city and developer have both been adamant that the affordable housing will become a reality.