Willets Point, the neighborhood of auto chop shops and upholstery stores that for decades has occupied the polluted land atop the Flushing River, has been in limbo since the Bloomberg administration zeroed in on redeveloping it back in the early 2000s.
The current plan, which would replace the once-thriving and now mostly demolished immigrant business community with yet another shopping mall in an area already jam-packed with them, has been stalled in state court since last summer, when a last-ditch legal effort successfully blocked the project from moving forward.
The de Blasio administration, realizing that a shopping mall didn’t quite fit the bill for their steep goal for new affordable housing, declined to join the developer’s appeal of the ruling. “The market should be more than able to accommodate both affordable housing and other development on the site,” Alicia Glen, the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, told me at the time.
But the city’s withdrawal of support for the shopping mall project didn’t mean that it was dead — it just meant that the developers would have to line up supporters from outside of City Hall, many of whom have deep connections to the developers, who are a combination of Mets ownership, Sterling Equities, and the construction giant Related.
The newest political figure to support a shopping mall instead of a park is Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. In an amicus brief filed late last month in support of the development group, Schneiderman laid out the case that the mall was the only funding mechanism possible to make cleaning up the polluted site possible (this is patently untrue, as the city will actually be footing the remediation bill).
Schneiderman’s brief also argues that a private mall is a public amenity.
“The City has proposed to develop Willets West into a retail and entertainment complex that will provide over two hundred stores, a movie theater, and other entertainment venues to the local community —including residents of a new mixed-income neighborhood at Willets Point,” the brief states, giving a private retail mall the same weight as a park or public swimming pool. Schneiderman claims that this is the only way to protect the area from decades more of pollution.
Legally however, Schneiderman runs into the same problems that stopped the construction of the mall in the first place.
The mall would actually be built on parkland, while the remediated areas would be turned into a parking lot. By state law, the parkland simply cannot be turned into a mall, even if that means a public good would be established elsewhere. The developers have stated a general intention to build housing and a school on that remediated parking lot, eventually, but only after the mall begins making money. On top of that, the deal would also let the developers forego housing altogether in exchange for a measly $35 million.
John Low-Beer, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, dismissed Schneiderman’s line of thinking as Orwellian. “The State says they have to construct a shopping mall on parkland, and effectively repeal the legal rule that protects parkland, in order to protect the State’s natural resources,” Low-Beer tells the Voice. “Or, as was said in a different context, ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it.’”
Asked for comment as to why Schneiderman was wading into a land use lawsuit that the state wasn’t named in, Doug Cohen, a spokesman for the Attorney General said, “As the lawyer for the State, OAG filed this brief at the request of State DEC and the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which identified State interests related to future environmental clean-ups, and the proper uses of parkland.”
Yet plaintiffs in the lawsuit were baffled as to why Schneiderman was getting involved. Advocates have repeatedly argued that the 47 acres of parkland that the mall would be built on have nothing to do, legally, with the remediation of the nearby land.
“The Attorney General’s involvement is misguided and unfortunate. Instead of protecting public parkland, he’s lobbying on behalf of the city’s most powerful developer at the expense of taxpayers,” Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told the Voice. “That land is worth close to a billion dollars and if the Mets no longer need it for surface parking then it should revert back to recreational park space as originally envisioned.”
Combined, Schneiderman and Governor Andrew Cuomo have accepted more than $200,000 in campaign donations from executives at both Sterling Equities and Related.
Schneiderman’s amicus brief follows a similar brief in support of the project filed by the entire City Council last year, which condemned the administration for failing to join the developer’s appeal and backing up a project that the city council had approved.
“Millions of public dollars have already been invested in this project and families, small businesses and workers need to see the benefits of the plan that was promised to Queens,” Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland said at the time. “My community needs a solution that is swift and equitable.”
Ferreras-Copeland has been a staunch supporter of the project, forming a close bond with the development group, which has promised to give $5 million to her pet project, the Flushing-Meadows Park Alliance, a group that Ferreras-Copeland illegally established to profit off of private events in the park. The City Council has never passed a single resolution allowing for the construction of a mall or the alienation of parkland, however. In 2008, it passed a much earlier version of the redevelopment plan, which did not include the mall.
Despite abandoning the project earlier, the de Blasio administration, who has cozied up to real estate interests considerably over the past year, has also now filed a brief in support of the project.
No date has been set yet for the appeal hearings. The plaintiffs plan on filing a response to Schneiderman’s brief early next week.