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Queens Chronicle

What are they thinking at Willets?

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Posted: Thursday, October 17, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 11:19 am, Thu Oct 24, 2013.

The streets of Willets Point have remained unusually quiet despite the recent City Council vote approving the monumental $3 billion mixed-use development that would turn the “Valley of Ashes” into one of the largest shopping malls in the city.

After several calls and emails to business owners, who have outwardly opposed the plan since it was proposed, went unanswered, some have speculated that the group, Willets Point United, and others may be planning something.

“Unfortunately, the City Council and in particular Julissa Ferraras refused to hear the community’s overwhelming rejection of Sterling/Related’s proposed 1.4 million-square-foot mall that will sit on 40+ acres of Queens parkland,” a representative of Willets Point United finally wrote back in an email on Tuesday. “Nothing that has been negotiated by Julissa Ferreras makes that mall any less objectionable now than it has been since it was first announced in June 2012.”

The morning of the vote, Councilwoman Ferreras (D-Elmhust) gushed about the deal she struck with the developers to add more affordable housing as well as donating $15.5 million to the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Alliance despite a city law that requires all parkland be replaced with an equal amount of viable land.

The use of parkland for the project has been the subject of much debate, even leading to some Council members to not vote in favor.

“A mall on 40+ acres of Queens parkland was never a component of the original Willets Point development approved in 2008 and it was, and is unnecessary to so drastically expand the plan to include and prioritize that mall,” Willets United wrote.

Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) cited this and other factors as the reasoning for his abstention.

“I supported the original proposal which called for development at Willets Point which is a blighted area and needs improvements,” he said. “Since that time, the area has changed tremendously as did the proposal. The process should have started over so people could give their input on using parkland and the mall and other changes.”

Vallone was pleased that highway ramps from the Van Wyk Expressway would be installed, allowing for more traffic flow.

Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) voted no on the plans, but would not comment on his reason for doing so.

Another controversial part of the deal was affordable housing. According to the final agreement released by Ferreras’ office, 40 percent of the housing units will be affordable but housing will not be built until 2025 even though the mall is scheduled to be completed by 2018.

The Queens Housing Coalition has continuously urged developers to prioritize the residential developments as opposed to the commercial development to ensure the company will stay true to its word.

Some have theorized that the developers may pull a bait and switch resulting in little to no affordable housing at Willets Point.

“Affordable housing is the biggest joke in New York City,” said Michael Rikon, an attorney who used to represent WPU. “Developers use the phrase to get the politicians on board and they promise all of these affordable housing units, but look at Atlantic Yard, there is no affordable housing there. It’s all just propaganda.”

Rikon went on to say that this development will be a major blow to surrounding businesses.

“This truly is a horrible situation for a lot of small businesses,” he said. “All the city has to do is put all that money into sewers and lighting and this area would begin to self-improve on its own. They always show the holes in the streets but never show the substantial businesses that are here, that do not want to leave.”

Part of the Willets Point plan involves assisting existing businesses in relocating but Rikon said it’s not that easy.

“The company they’re working with is a great company but they aren’t going to be able to help these businesses,” he said. “No one is going to let them move in. I’ve seen it time and time again and it’ll be the same thing for these businesses. They will help them leave, but where will they go?”

The WPU website has not had any posts since the vote was taken even though the group shared its thoughts openly and willingly throughout the process.

The group has not addressed why members remain silent but ended the email with a sentence that left more questions than answers.

“Among the community’s many resources are the new mayor and the courts,” it read. “Stay tuned.”

“I don’t know what they’re up to,” Rikon said. “They might be suing, that’s what I did last time and I was successful in that they abandoned the proceeding. Since I’m not representing Willets Point United any more, I don’t know what’s going on there.”

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