Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Developer Hires Retired Top Judge to Defend Mega-Mall on Queens Parkland

Queens Development Group (“QDG”) is pulling out all the legal stops to defend its outrageous plan to use 40+ acres of Queens park land to construct a 1.4 million square foot mega-mall called “Willets West” – going as far as to hire judicial juggernaut Judith Kaye, the former Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York state, to advocate for the mega-mall in court proceedings.

Appearance on The Open Mind;
accessible online at: https://archive.

As readers may recall, QDG’s plan to construct Willets West on Queens park land next to Citi Field was dictated by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a closed process that totally circumvented the promised involvement of the Willets Point Advisory Committee, chaired at the time by Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. Willets West never directly underwent any other public approval process. A lawsuit filed this year by City Club of New York, State Senator Tony Avella, Queens Civic Congress, several members of Willets Point United Inc., New York City Park Advocates and nearby residents/business owners asserts that Willets West cannot proceed and is illegal, because it lacks approval from the New York State legislature that is required when park land is appropriated for non-park use, and because Willets West also lacks approval through the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. In essence, the lawsuit challenges the give-away of Queens park land to developers as dictated by Michael Bloomberg.

Developer QDG claims that authorizations granted in 1961 relating to the construction of Shea Stadium are all that is necessary now to build the Willets West mega-mall on adjacent Queens park land.

Queens Development Group is a joint venture of The Related Companies and Sterling Equities (whose owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz also own the New York Mets).

The court case, Sen. Tony Avella v. City of New York, is pending before Justice Manuel Mendez in New York State Supreme Court. Oral argument will take place on July 30, 2014 at 2:15PM at 71 Thomas Street, Room 210.

QDG must be so nervous about the prospect of an adverse court decision, that it has resorted to bringing in the ultimate New York judicial juggernaut – former Chief Judge Judith Kaye – to attempt to persuade the court to see things QDG’s way. Frankly, we think this is also a not-so-subtle attempt to intimidate Justice Mendez into siding with QDG, and to make it uncomfortable for him to do otherwise. After all, the legal issues raised by this case are clear-cut, and could be very well presented by any competent attorney who doesn’t happen to be a former Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. What, then, does QDG gain by retaining former Chief Judge Judith Kaye for this case?

Well, for Justice Mendez to rule in favor of Plaintiffs/Petitioners (against QDG and Willets West), he would have to disagree with not just any QDG lawyer, but with Judith Kaye, former Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. It is as if the former Chief Judge is telling Justice Mendez on behalf of QDG: “I find that this mega-mall is legal and may proceed. Who are you to disagree with me, the former Chief Judge at this state’s highest court, two levels above yours?”

With all due respect, it should be noted that Justice Mendez is at the Supreme Court – the lowest level of trial court in New York State. Above that is the Appellate Division. And above that is the Court of Appeals, where Judith Kaye was an Associate Judge from 1983 through 1993, and then Chief Judge for 15 years from 1993 through 2008, when she retired because of age restrictions. She is now of counsel, and apparently for hire, at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP.

American Judicial Society; public domain
image accessible online at:
We also note that Judith Kaye was first appointed to the Court of Appeals, and later designated its Chief Judge, by then-Governor Mario Cuomo – the same Mario Cuomo who, in 2012, brokered settlement talks on behalf of Mets owners including Fred Wilpon who were involved in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard had sued the Wilpons to recover $386 million in swindle profits. Cuomo not only reduced the amount the Wilpons owe to $162 million, but also got Picard to drop his claim that the Wilpons were willfully blind to Madoff’s fraud. Now, Cuomo friend Judith Kaye is assisting the Wilpons’ Sterling Equities to lay claim to 40+ acres of Queens park land, to supplant it with a mega-mall.

We pray that Justice Manuel Mendez sees right through QDG’s attempt to strong-arm his decision in the Willets West matter by inserting former Chief Judge Judith Kaye into the case – and that Justice Mendez will have the fortitude to disregard undue pressure and render a decision that is based, as it should be, on the relevant facts and law.

We also wonder how Judith Kaye sleeps at night, knowing that she has made herself and her symbolic influence available in service of development on park land that is opposed by, among others, the Queens Civic Congress as well as the community board located closest to the proposed site – development that has been foisted upon the people of Queens by a former Mayor who even abrogated written promises to involve the Willets Point Advisory Committee in developer selection.

The proposed Willets Point development has already had much more than its fair share of scandal, including illegal lobbying for the project by Claire Shulman’s local development corporation (“LDC”) and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (“NYCEDC”), as determined by Attorney General Schneiderman, which required the complete corporate re-structuring of NYCEDC so that it may comply with the law in the future; the provision of City funds to Shulman’s LDC in support of illegal lobbying activities; the leveraging of eminent domain to coerce sales of private property, and initiating eminent domain not for any essential public purpose, but to facilitate private development; the gifting by then-Mayor Bloomberg of 23 acres of Willets Point Phase One property, acquired at a cost to City taxpayers in excess of $250 million, to QDG for the price of $1 (one dollar), contrary to the administration’s promise to recoup the high cost of property acquisition via the eventual sale of the property to the developer; provision of a grant of taxpayer funds totaling $99 million to QDG to pay its development costs; provision of a tax credit in the amount of $43 million to QDG; appraising the Willets West site to have a value of “negative $35.4 million,” even though the site consists of virgin land that QDG insists is clean and uncontaminated; QDG’s filing of its brownfield application with New York State without informing Queens Community Board 7 (“CB7”), contrary to QDG’s agreement with CB7; to name a few. To that sorry list we now add QDG’s hiring of judicial juggernaut Judith Kaye for the purpose of ensuring the undemocratic give-away of Queens park land.

We give the last word to public sentiment concerning the proposed Willets West mega-mall:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Willets West oral arguments 7/30

Who: Petitioners/Plaintiffs and Respondents/Defendants
in the matter of Sen. Tony Avella v. City of New York
Index number 100161/2014

What: Oral argument in New York State Supreme Court

When: July 30, 2014 at 2:15PM

Where: 71 Thomas Street
New York, New York 10013
Courtroom of Justice Manuel Mendez / Part 13 / Room 210

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Letter: Willets Point plan paid off only for developers

Letter to the editor of the Times Ledger:

TimesLedger Newspapers’ recent Queens Tomorrow magazine includes the article “Willets shops look for home” and contains a rendering of what purports to be the 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall slated for the current parking lot adjacent to Citi Field.

With all due respect, the public is entitled to a clearer picture of what is involved.

Claiming Willets Point was a blighted area ignores the fact that the blight, if any, was caused by the city collecting sewer rent from the area’s owners when there were no sewers and other taxes without addressing the area’s infrastructure. The Bloomberg administration decided the 225 small businesses in the area, with their hundreds of employees, had to go to be replaced by a development said at the time to include retail shops, a school, a convention center and luxury housing with a portion set aside for affordable housing.

The preliminary presentation went before Community Board 7, since the area was within its jurisdiction. CB 7 approved the application in no small part because of the inclusion of affordable housing and because then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg assured the board it would have input in the selection of the project’s developer.

Bloomberg reneged on his promise and the board had no input or knowledge of who the developer was until it was a fait accompli.

One of the several developers interested in the project was Related Cos. and Sterling Equities, affiliated with the Wilpons, owners of the New York Mets, the lease holder of Citi Field. Subsequent developments suggest they were the selected developers and had little interest in the project as approved in 2008.

What they really wanted was to have included a gaming casino and, when it appeared that was never going to happen, the project became dormant until 2012, at which time they came up with a new plan.

They sought what they claimed was a slight change in the approved 2008 plan. They wanted permission to have constructed in Willets Point a large parking lot. Not a significant change until it became clear there was an elephant in the room. They wanted the parking lot so they could transfer the Citi Field parking lot to Willets Point and on the vacated Citi Field parking lot construct a 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall, that to be done notwithstanding the Citi Field parking lot is on Flushing Meadows Corona Park land, and bypass Uniform Land Use Review Procedure and park land alienation requirements.

The City Council, which consistently views large real estate interests as their true constituents and the public be damned, approved the application. As bad as it was for the Council to ignore the bypassing of ULURP and park alienation requirements, the deal was so financially outrageous as to make the misdeeds of Boss Tweed a simple panhandler.

The 2012 deal the City went along with involved the sale of the Willets Point property, which the city acquired for tens of millions of dollars, to the billionaire developers for $1 — a subsidy of $99 million and a tax abatement of about $50 million.

As nefarious as all this was, it was just the tip of the iceberg. The Council went along with the developers’ priority. The developers would construct the Willets Point parking lot and, freeing up the Citi Field parking lot, it would enable them to proceed with their 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall.

The least priority, which one would recall was an important linchpin in the approved 2008 plan, was affordable housing. Under the 2012 plan, affordable housing was put on the back burner and will not be accomplished until 2025, if at all. Apart from the fact that that would be 17 years after it was approved in 2008, I say “if at all,” because it will never happen.

The plan approved gives the developers the right to withdraw from Willets Point by forfeiting something like $35 million. As greedy as Related Cos., Sterling Equities and the Wilpons are, they are astute business people, not stupid. After spending billions on the mall, a penalty to walk away from affordable housing, a financial loser, for about $35 million dollars is pennies. Walk is what will happen.

If stupidity in elective office were a crime, the past and current Council members who approved this abomination would be in trouble. It is to be noted that litigation is pending to let right be done and undo the above. One hopes the courts will do so.

Benjamin Haber

Monday, April 28, 2014

2nd meeting set for CB7 and Queens Development Group

WPU Information for CB7 QDG Meeting 140428

The second quarterly meeting between Queens Community Board 7 ("CB7") and Queens Development Group ("QDG," the designated developer of Willets Point Phase One and the Willets West mega-mall on parkland) will take place on Wednesday, April 30, 2014 at 7:30PM at the Union Plaza Care Center, 33-23 Union Street, 9th Floor, Flushing.

At the prior quarterly meeting last October, Willets Point United Inc. ("WPU") exposed that QDG had already filed a brownfield application with NYSDEC on August 8, 2013, without informing CB7 that it had done so – a direct violation of CB7's first condition to its May 13, 2013 approval of the Willets Point special permit sought by QDG: "The Joint Venture [QDG] agreed to alert CB#7 when all applications are made to NYS DEC."

WPU also exposed that QDG had deliberately omitted from its brownfield application numerous Willets Point properties that, by QDG's own definition, should be most in need of remediation via the brownfield program. Following intervention by WPU and State Senator Tony Avella, QDG recently amended its brownfield application to include the previously omitted properties.

QDG's project is challenged by two pending lawsuits, one of which was filed by Senator Avella, City Club of New York, Queens Civic Congress, Inc., NYC Park Advocates, and interested residents and business owners. A rally held on March 22, 2014 in support of the lawsuit and against QDG's proposed Willets West mall was attended by Petitioners as well as members of the Bay Terrace Community Alliance, Bellerose Commonwealth Civic Association, Bellerose Hillside Civic Association, Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together (COMET), Flushing Meadows Corona Park Conservancy, Flushing on the Hill Civic Association, Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Civic Association, Hillcrest Estates Civic Association, Holly Civic Association, Jackson Heights Beautification Group, Juniper Park Civic Association, Kew Garden Hills Tenant Association, Kissena Park Civic Association, Queens Civic Congress, Queens Community Board 3, Queens Community Board 7, Queens Community Board 8, Queens Community Board 13 and WPU.

Despite such community opposition to QDG's project, elected officials and agencies continue to look the other way. For his part, new Mayor Bill de Blasio has shown no sign that he will prevent QDG from constructing a 1.4 million square foot shopping mall on Flushing Meadows Corona Park property.

Please see the attached information prepared by WPU in advance of Wednesday night's meeting.

Yours truly,

Willets Point United Inc.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Read Brian Ketcham's Daily News op ed

Brian Ketcham
The following is an excerpt from Brian Ketcham's recent op-ed in the Daily News:

"The folks at Willets Point United hired me to investigate the traffic and transit implications of this project. I’m a transportation and environmental engineer with decades of experience. What I found was that the project would generate so much traffic that it would gridlock local access roads and surrounding expressways. I also found that the EDC environmental impact statement was replete with erroneous assumptions, bad data, and outright falsehoods.

The project has gone ahead nonetheless, and the EDC handed over the development rights — behind closed doors — to Sterling Equities, a $4.6 billion real estate company and owner of the New York Mets. Sterling Equities teamed with The Related Companies, one of New York’s richest and most powerful developers, to form the Queens Development Group, which became the final recipient of the development rights for Willets Point.

The project has required massive public subsidies: $250 million for 23 acres of land at the site; $35 million for sewer construction; more than $66 million for the construction of new highway ramps; almost $100 million in a grant of taxpayer funds to the Queens Development Group; $42 million in direct financial assistance to the developer-a total of $536 million ponied up by taxpayers.

Today, the threat of redevelopment and eminent domain seizure has already driven out many of the businesses that once thrived in the Willets Point neighborhood. Few of the displaced businesses have successfully relocated.

For this reason 33 owners of Willets Point businesses filed suit in February 2014 against the EDC, Sterling Equities, The Related Companies, and the Queens Development Group. The lawsuit alleges that “there was no lawful relocation plan for current commercial tenants,” that “the relocation assistance has been ineffective,” and that the city’s failure to implement a legitimate relocation plan is a violation of federal law.

Eliminating taxpayer support for a billionaire’s boondoggle like the Willets Point Project will not make much of a dent in the level of extreme inequality in New York City. But it would make a statement that it is time to take a stand and help the working poor defend against the depredations of the rich."

Rally against the Willets West shopping mall on public parkland

Video of full speakers' statements at last Saturday's rally opposing the "Willets West" mall on parkland. Provided by LoScalzo Media Design LLC; copyright 2014

Read about the rally at the Queens Chronicle's website.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Fact-Checking the Wall Street Journal

Today's Wall Street Journal has a puff-piece announcing that certain Willets Point tenant businesses – members of the "Sunrise Cooperative" – will be relocating to a site in the Bronx.

What's interesting is that nowhere in the lengthy WSJ article is there any mention of the fact that Sunrise and its members had to resort to filing a lawsuit on February 4, 2014 against the City, NYCEDC and the developers, in order to force the City to assist as necessary in the Bronx deal. (Our take on that lawsuit is here.)

The Sunrise lawsuit asserts, among other things, that the City's failure to implement a meaningful relocation program violates federal law. The suit also argues that the court should "order the IDA to withdraw its financial award to the Developers since it failed to comply with its Uniform Tax Exemption Policy." The amount of that IDA financial award? A cool $43 million. It's easy to see why the Sunrise lawsuit focussed the City's attention and forced it to the table. Without the threat posed by that lawsuit, there would be no Bronx relocation.

As Sunrise leader Marco Neira recently told the Times Ledger newspaper: "We have to go through the court to get a settlement with them."

We think it's disingenuous of the WSJ to publish a lengthy article concerning the Sunrise relocation – including an excerpt of an interview with Sunrise's legal counsel – without reporting that a lawsuit was the necessary catalyst to the relocation deal.

Moreover, the WSJ states that "a group of 40 to 60 businesses has signed a lease" to move to the Bronx. And yet, the Sunrise Cooperative identified only 33 Sunrise members within the court papers filed for its lawsuit. And of those 33, several that we spoke with today said that they have NOT agreed to relocate to the Bronx, and that they were NOT informed that Sunrise signed any lease for a site in the Bronx.

We understand that last year, NYCEDC established a Co-Relocation Fund that offers up to $45,000.00 to each Willets Point tenant business that relocates together in a group of five or more to a common site. It seems to us that powers-that-be may be intending to pool funds that would be available to each Sunrise business under the Co-Relocation Fund, and use the combined amount to afford the Bronx lease deal. If that is the case, then it is significant that Sunrise members with whom we spoke today have not agreed to relocate to the Bronx, and have not agreed to pool any $45,000.00 to which they may be entitled. The slightest research by the WSJ or its reporter, Laura Kusisto, would have revealed that before going to press.

As with most Willets Point things, it seems to us that there is more going on here than meets the eye, or than has been reported by the WSJ. Other news outlets and the public are warned not to parrot everything they read, without questioning its accuracy.

We must add that, even presuming that 33 members of the Sunrise Cooperative would relocate to the Bronx, that is only a fraction – a third or less – of the total tenant businesses in Willets Point Phase One that need to be relocated. Relocation services provided to the Sunrise Cooperative, helpful though they may be, provide no relief whatsoever to the other tenant businesses, including members of the Willets Point Defense Committee led by Arturo Olaya – which recently held a news conference with New York State Senator Tony Avella to draw attention to the lack of relocation and ongoing evictions.

State Senator Tony Avella and members of the Willets Point Defense 
Committee hold a news conference concerning lack of relocation, 
February 28, 2014.