After eight years, two lawsuits, countless delays, and three city reversals, the plan for a mall at Willets Point has finally been defeated. And much like the Mets these days, it lost badly.
In a 5-1 decision, the Appeals Court upheld a lower court ruling that held the owners of the Mets could not build a mall on city-owned parkland. The land in question, the former site of Shea Stadium, which was demolished in 2008, is currently the Mets parking lot. A 1961 law allowed that parkland to be used for stadium purposes, a cutout that a mall would not have satisfied, the court found.
“There is no dispute that the Willets West development is proposed to be constructed entirely on city parkland,” the judges wrote, continuing that the “public trust doctrine,” which dictates the uses for public lands, “is ancient and firmly established in our precedent.” Nowhere in the Mets owners arguments was a mall found to be in line with the public trust doctrine, the court found.
The Mets owners were arguing that by using the mall to fund the remediation of Willets Point (a parcel of land on the other side of their current stadium), and eventually the construction of both affordable housing and a school, the mall was fulfilling the public trust doctrine. The court found that too to be unconvincing, and also didn’t believe the Mets owners were actually going to build the housing or schools.
“Phase 1B, expected to begin in 2026, would include construction of 2,490 housing units (35 percent of which would be affordable), a public school, and open outdoor space. Under the agreement between QDG [Queens Development Group, a joint venture between the Mets ownership, Sterling Equities, and the construction and management company Related] and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, QDG could avoid phase 1B by paying $35 million,” the ruling pointed out, recalling the deal that Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland made in 2012 while signing off on the mall.
Back in April, representatives from the city and the state, as well as the Mets ownership group, argued in front of the court in favor of the project. But the justices were unimpressed.
“How is a retail center in the public benefit?” asked Judge Jenny Rivera, who frequently pressed the lawyers on why a mall would be considered a beneficial use of the space.
In an almost surreal moment during the arguments, a city lawyer said that if the Mets were losing a game, fans might be able to go enjoy the rest of the day at the mall. The state, for its part, argued that the “rooftop farm and greenhouse” on top of the mall would compensate for the loss of parkland.
Originally, the de Blasio administration had declined to join the appeal. The project was spearheaded by the Bloomberg administration, and given the initial lower court ruling against the mall, City Hall was eager to either negotiate with Mets ownership, or rethink the development project completely.
“If the developers’ appeal were to be denied, we’re in a situation where we would re-engage with the development team to see whether or not they are prepared to move forward with the project,” Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen told me in 2015, after the lower court ruling. “But if they can’t, or if it’s not financially viable, there’s the possibility of looking at other options. Given the stadium and the proximity to transportation, there’s just a lot of opportunity at that site, and a lot of people are going to be interested in it.”
In a reversal, however, City Hall decided to join the appeal at the last minute, perhaps sensing that even if its arguments were unsuccessful, it would have shown good faith toward the developers, whom it is counting on to remediate the Willets Point site.
Last week, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the main proponent of the mall plan, announced she would not be seeking re-election this year. The future of the site is sure to loom large in the fight over her vacated seat. Ferreras-Copeland had broken with City Hall on the issue and forced a vote by City Council on filing an amicus brief in support of the project.
After the ruling this morning, City Hall reaffirmed its commitment to developing Willets Point, even without the mall functioning as a funding mechanism for remediation.
“Our priorities remain the same: jump-starting the affordable housing, schools, libraries, retail, and open space this community was promised,” said City Hall spokeswoman Melissa Grace. “This ruling does not alter the city’s ability to move ahead with a dynamic mixed-use project on Willets East. We’ll determine the best path forward with stakeholders in the coming weeks.”
A spokesman for the Mets ownership said that they were “disappointed” and “are in the process of evaluating our next steps.”
City Hall will soon sit down with the developers to figure out what parts of the agreement remain possible, including the affordable housing and school. If the Mets ownership were to back out of the affordable housing now that it is not getting a mall in return, it’s possible that the $35 million penalty would still apply.