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Queens Chronicle

Willets Point casino sought in first Sterling Equities, Related proposal

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Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 11:26 am, Thu Feb 14, 2013.

A gaming company, an Indian tribe and three developers walk into Willets Point …

The collective, including the Mets’ parent company Sterling Equities, bet in 2011 the city would approve a casino as part of the proposed redevelopment of Willets Point. They lost and were sent back to the drawing board by the city’s Economic Development Corporation. But groups opposing the mayor’s plan for the Iron Triangle suspect gaming may re-emerge in subsequent portions of Willets Point’s multi-phase rejuvenation.

The Bloomberg administration has made clear it does not intend to put a casino in Willets Point. But although it’s not even an option at the moment, the door may open for subsequent mayors, well after Bloomberg’s term ends this year.

The problem lies in a growing list of variables, leaving the odds of a Willets Point casino largely unknown.

Gov. Cuomo has made clear he intends to push for up to seven more casinos across the state, four specifically upstate. That may mean up to three new casinos at downstate locations. Casino-style gambling’s future in the state is still uncertain and needs to pass a statewide referendum, which could be years away — when Bloomberg’s successor is at the city’s helm.

The uncertainty was exacerbated when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), in a Jan. 24 appearance on NY1’s “Road To City Hall,” pointed to Willets Point as a viable location for a casino.

That statement, combined with the city’s history of changing direction at Willets Point, has opponents claiming the first casino proposal was a precursor to the possible future of the redevelopment.

Related Companies, Sterling Equities, Triple M Development, gaming firm Gateway and the Shinnecock Indian Nation in September 2011 responded to the city’s request for proposals for Willets Point with a plan that included a 1.8 million-square-foot mall, 900,000-square-foot casino and 30-story hotel while converting most of the Iron Triangle into a parking lot. They offered $100 million for the entirety of its 62 acres.

The plan notably lacked a full-bore remediation of the area and affordable housing, two key components of the project. The EDC said no dice.

“The submission that included a gaming use was quickly dismissed as unviable and out of step with the goals the city and EDC had outlined,” said an EDC spokesman.

But that limitation only applies to the first phase of the Willets Point redevelopment: a mall; a hotel and 2,500 housing units. The EDC accepted the bid from the Queens Development Group, made up of Related and Sterling Equities, for Phase 1 of the redevelopment.

The casino proposal was gained via a Freedom of Information Law request filed by opposition groups Willets Point United and NYC Park Advocates.

An ensuing brouhaha saw the city and developers going through pains to deny a casino was in the works.

“There is no casino being built at Willets Point, period,” said EDC spokesman Nick Kelly.

The Queens Development Group also copped to proposing a casino, but has since walked away from the idea.

“An initial concept submitted two years ago floated the possibility of Indian gaming and was dismissed by the city,” the Queens Development Group said in a statement. “Our plans for Willets Point do not include an Indian or commercial casino, which is illegal. Even if it were legal, it would not be allowed under the environmental process we are undertaking and our agreement with the city prohibits this use.”

Building a casino on parkland, which Citi Field and its parking lot occupy, is technically illegal and fraught with all manner of hurdles at the federal level.

“It’s hard to think of a more morally corrupt project than putting a casino on public parkland in the middle of a low-income community,” said NYC Park Advocates’ Geoffrey Croft.

The RFPs for subsequent phases are years away from happening. In the meantime, WPU has no faith that Phase 1, as presented, will ever come to fruition, saying the first casino plan “underscores that the Willets Point development is merely a pretext for the owners of the Mets to consolidate property surrounding the stadium, and exploit it for their maximum profit.”

The group also decried the EDC’s lackluster response to another FOIL request for the Queens Development Group’s submission.

“There appears to be nothing about the environmental review documents for the current project that precludes the possibility of a casino being the developers’ actual objective, even now,” WPU said. “Those environmental documents refer vaguely to an ‘entertainment center’ — which opens the door to the developers later saying that a casino is a type of entertainment, and therefore falls under the approvals they’re seeking now.”

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