After an uphill battle, the petitioners of the Willets West lawsuit have not prevailed.
Justice Manuel Mendez ruled Monday that, despite claims of land use violations, the city and the Queens Development Group can move forward with their plans to build a shopping mall and entertainment center on parkland.
According to Mendez, the proposal did not need to go through the usual Uniform Land Use Review Procedure because the Parks Department, a city agency, would retain control over the land and the mall would be serving a public purpose and did not, he said, need state approval, as the plaintiffs contest.
“The public trust doctrine requires legislative approval before a substantial intrusion or a lease is entered into, resulting in the use of parkland for non-park purposes,” Mendez wrote. “A municipality may lease improvements to property to a private operator, on the condition that it serves a public purpose, and that ownership of the improvement is retained by the municipality.”
The plaintiffs’ attorney, John Low-Beer, said he does not agree with Mendez’s decision and plans to appeal.
“Plaintiffs believe that the decision misunderstands the common law doctrine that prohibits any non-park use of parkland without the specific and explicit approval of the state Legislature,” he said in a written statement. The state Legislature, when it passed the 1961 law permitting the construction of Shea Stadium, did not intend to allow construction of a shopping mall. That law did not allow the construction of anything except a stadium and related facilities on the site. Plaintiffs will appeal, and believe that this decision will be reversed on appeal.”
A major factor in the case was an administrative code from 1961, which established that although the intent for the parkland was for Shea Stadium, other uses were acceptable for the a public purpose, specifically, “improvement of trade or commerce.”
The defense rejoiced in Mendez’s decision.
“The ruling is unequivocal in saying that the project is consistent with state law and rejecting every argument to the contrary,” a spokesman for the QDG said in a written statement. “More important, the decision reinforces the support that the City Council and a wide array of community stakeholders have given to this project. It is a significant step forward in the effort to create a new Willets and reverse 100 years of pollution. This $3 billion private investment — the largest investment in Queens’ history — will revitalize an area that has been neglected for far too long, and will include the creation of thousands of jobs and affordable housing.”
After the opening arguments, some of the plaintiffs criticized the defense for showing pictures of blighted Willets Point, which is adjacent to the Willets West site.
The city argued the proposal by QDG could be one of the last opportunities to clean up the area.
The project’s opponents, however, also contend that Mayor de Blasio and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz may have to revisit the sale of 23 acres to the QDG.
According to the group Willets Point United, not all the land was the city’s to sell during former-Mayor Bloomberg’s administration.
As it stands, only two acres have been conveyed to the developer, though 95 percent of the parcels for Phase One of the project have been acquired by the city.
“Former Mayor Bloomberg could not have validly authorized the sale of all 23 acres that comprise Willets Point Phase One, because not all lots within the 23 acres were owned by the city during the Bloomberg administration,” the group wrote in a letter to state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside).
The senator, upon receiving the letter, forwarded it de Blasio, urging him to review WPU’s points.
Should de Blasio find the group to be right, he and Katz would have to go back to square one and determine how much — if any — of the land to sell, and at what cost.
The mayor’s office could not be reached for comment.