After months of anticipation and frustration, the Willets West civil suit went to court on July 31 and the plaintiffs have found themselves in a position to possibly win.
The lawsuit, filed several months ago, is challenging the giveaway of 47 acres of parkland near Citi Field, worth an estimated $1 billion, to build a mall and entertainment center. The project is partnered with the Willets Point Development Project.
The plaintiffs — property owners, activists and community leaders, including state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) — are asking state Supreme Court Justice Manuel Mendez to invalidate the approvals granted to the project and grant a permanent injunction that would prevent construction of the so-called megamall on parkland without obtaining state legislative authorization.
According to several sources in attendance, the courtroom was filled.
The defendants, which include the City of New York and the Queens Development Group, the developer, began their argument by displaying posters of the blighted Willets Point area followed by artists’ renderings of what the space would look like, should the project continue.
While the area, also known as the Iron Triangle, does lack solid paved roads, proper sewage and street lights, this location is not the parkland being argued over.
The plot of parkland the case mentions is a parking lot for Citi Field. Still, former Justice Judith Kaye, one of the defendants’ attorneys, continued to discuss the extreme benefit the project will have for the rugged area.
“There were not a lot of surprises,” John Low-Beer, one attorney for the plaintiffs, said. “The defense spent a lot of time talking about how horrible Willets Point is and how wonderful things are going to be once they develop the area.”
The city Law Department would not comment on the case.
At the center of the case is a statute from 1961, which acted as a waiver for the construction of Shea Stadium.
The statute states “prior to or after the expiration or termination of duration of any contracts ... who may from time to time enter into amended, new, additional or further contracts ...” when the purpose “is of such a nature as to furnish to, or foster ... benefit of, the people of the city ... improvement of trade and commerce ...”
At the time, the agency in charge of approving or denying new contracts was the Board of Estimate, whose power was split in 1990, with business decisions being placed in the hands of the mayor and land use decisions with the City Council.
However, the City Council has not reviewed and approved any land use application for the 47 acres.
According to the defense, the reason for that is the Parks Department — which has control over the land — will not be giving it up once the mall is constructed. The defense presented an affidavit signed by Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver as proof.
But the question that remains is: Can the Parks Department successfully maintain control over a massive shopping mall?
In parks around the city, there are restaurants and food stands that the department controls. These vendors are considered concession stands and decisions include menu prices and hours of operation.
Assuming the Parks Department does maintain control, it may have to make similar decisions for all the tenants within the mall. As this is a special case, it is difficult to determine how the agency will handle it.
There are no examples of the agency controlling land upon which a mall stands and the Parks Department would not comment on the case.
Even so, the plaintiffs maintain that the proper land use procedure should be instituted and that the designation of power from the Board of Estimate to the City Council and mayor should be honored.
In the end, the defense said Low-Beer’s argument on the 1961 statute as it pertains to the Board of Estimate was not included in the reply brief submitted to the judge prior to the court date. They asked the argument be thrown out, but Mendez gave the city two weeks to come up with a response to Low-Beer’s argument.
“The bottom line is that this case must be decided on merits,” Avella, who attended the court hearing, said. “And from what we heard today, the defendants have no explanation as to why they did not follow the law, just that they didn’t. I think their case simply does not make sense.”