Friday, October 31, 2014

Meeting at Department of State

Albany, New York:  Members of Willets Point United Inc. (“WPU”) held a meeting with the New York State Committee on Open Government’s Executive Director, attorney Robert Freeman, and its Assistant Director, attorney Camille Jobin-Davis, at the Committee’s office.

Joseph Ardizzone (WPU), Robert Freeman, Esq. (Committee Executive Director),
Camille Jobin-Davis, Esq. (Committee Assistant Director) and Irene Prestigiacomo
(WPU) at the office of the NYS Committee on Open Government.

The Committee on Open Government is a unit of the Department of State that oversees and advises the government, public, and news media on the Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”), Open Meetings Law and Personal Privacy Protection Law.

WPU routinely files FOIL requests with agencies involved in the proposed Willets Point development, seeking project records that would not otherwise be publicly disclosed – and has filed scores of such requests within the past several years. In pursuing our requests and associated appeals when access to records is denied, WPU has benefitted from the Committee’s advice and its written legal opinions regarding agencies’ obligations pursuant to FOIL, which records are available under FOIL, and many other crucial factors.

The recent meeting between WPU and Committee members allowed a face-to-face exchange of ideas concerning certain pending FOIL requests. Moreover, the meeting provided an opportunity to discuss ways in which FOIL could be strengthened to benefit the public – all while acknowledging that this year marks the 40th Anniversary of FOIL’s enactment into law. We were also very pleased to summarize for the Committee how WPU has leveraged FOIL over the years, obtaining records that have become the bases of many news reports and that have exposed corruption, among other results.

FOIL resulted in the disclosure of contracts, financial documents and communications showing (among many other things) that NYCEDC funneled $450,000.00 to Claire Shulman’s local development corporation, and instructed it to lobby for legislation authorizing the proposed Willets Point development – in direct violation of state law, as ultimately found by NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. That resulted in the dissolution and restructuring of NYCEDC to ensure that it stops violating the law – but no person has been held to account for any of the prior illegal activity. To the contrary, at least one NYCEDC official who – according to a city Law Department attorney – the Attorney General’s office was “trying to set up for a criminal prosecution” has not actually been prosecuted.

Article accessible online here.

In response to a FOIL request, NYCEDC refused to even disclose just the names of the developer firms that had responded to the Request For Proposals pertaining to Phase One of Willets Point. At the time, the Committee’s Robert Freeman told the press: “I don’t see any conceivable basis for withholding these names.” (See our prior blog article.)

FOIL unearthed records showing that Sterling Equities and Related Companies originally wanted to construct a gambling casino on the parkland where they now say they will construct a mega-mall – even going as far as enlisting the Shinnecock Indian Nation to operate the casino. For all the public knows, Sterling and Related may still be pursuing their original, preferred intent to construct a gambling casino on the parkland. That would hardly be the first bait-and-switch in this development.

Article accessible online here.

FOIL obtained the contracts between NYCEDC and developers Sterling/Related, showing (among other things) that the Bloomberg administration reneged on its assurance to recoup the cost of acquiring Willets Point Phase One property – $400+ million taxpayer dollars – and instead arranged to gift the property to Sterling/Related for the price of $1 (one dollar). The same contracts show that housing at Willets Point – originally the most highly-touted component – is delayed until at least the year 2025, and that Sterling/Related may opt out of constructing housing by paying $35 million (a mere cost of doing business); and that if the city does not first construct expensive new access ramps to and from the Van Wyck Expressway, Sterling/Related will neither construct any housing nor pay any penalty.

Article accessible online here.

FOIL disclosed the approved schematic plans for the entire Willets Point Phase One / Willets West mega-mall – plans which developers Sterling/Related still have not presented during any meeting with Queens Community Board 7, although they are required to do so, according to the board’s District Manager.

FOIL yielded records showing that NYSDOT officials were being pressured to approve inadequate plans to construct new Van Wyck access ramps – based upon traffic data that differed suspiciously from data previously proffered to the New York City Council. Michael Bergmann, a NYSDOT structural engineer on the team that reviewed the City’s ramp application, wrote to the NYSDOT regional director and colleagues: “Unless the preparers of this report start accepting the idea that it is seriously flawed, we are going nowhere.” Peter King, a NYSDOT project manager, wrote: “If I were a betting man, I’d start dropping the odds regarding success for E.D.C. on this project,” and that a mistaken completion date of the year 2107 instead of 2017 “may have been closer to the truth than anyone realizes.” After WPU obtained these email records and traffic data, and after WPU’s traffic expert Brian Ketcham and its environmental attorney Michael Gerrard of Arnold & Porter intervened with NYSDOT and FHWA, NYCEDC withdrew its ramp application, resulting in a long delay while NYCEDC’s consultant reconsidered its traffic data. Neither Mr. Ketcham nor Mr. Gerrard is satisfied that the ramps have been properly evaluated, and to this day, the ramps remain an open and contentious issue.

Without FOIL, it is unlikely that the public would have ever known any of the above-described facts.

WPU is a staunch supporter of FOIL, and we wholeheartedly salute the work of the Committee on Open Government and its two mainstays, Robert Freeman and Camille Jobin-Davis, in helping to ensure that FOIL is properly implemented by agencies. In all our dealings with so many city and state agencies, we have seen none other that is as genuinely helpful and responsive as the Committee on Open Government. This is one place where we are pleased to see our tax dollars at work and used well.

Emphasizing the importance of public records and open meetings, Mr. Freeman, the Committee’s Executive Director, is fond of quoting Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” As our meeting concluded, Mr. Freeman reminded us of that quotation.

In the same spirit, WPU vows to continue to leverage FOIL and other laws, to discredit, incriminate and fight our opponents.

Joseph Ardizzone (WPU) and Irene Prestigiacomo (WPU),
outside of the NYS Committee on Open Government.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Support letters and CB7 resolution

Letters Parkland Lawsuit

Ben Haber had a lengthy letter published in a Queens weekly, regarding the status of the lawsuit challenging the Willets West mall. The following week, another letter-writer agreed with Haber. Attached are both of the letters.

These were distributed at the Borough Board meeting this past Monday.

CB7 Parkland Resolution 140908

During its meeting on Sept. 8, Queens Community Board 7 adopted the attached resolution pertaining to parkland alienation, with minor
corrections (mostly typo fixes) made before the vote. Manhattan CB6 had previously adopted a similar resolution.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Willets West case dismissed; attorney issues official statement

Justice Manuel Mendez, NYS Supreme Court, NY District, has issued his decision to dismiss the lawsuit brought by plaintiffs Sen. Tony Avella, City Club of New York, Queens Civic Congress and others, challenging the plan of Queens Development Group LLC to construct a 1.4 million square foot mega-mall on 40+ acres of Queens parkland.
Justice Manuel Mendez, who has
decided that the Willets West mega-mall
can be built on 40+ acres of Queens
parkland. Photo by Rafael Fern├índez.
Justice Mendez concludes that the 1961 authorization to construct Shea Stadium also allows construction of the mega-mall on parkland.

Below is the official statement of John Low-Beer, attorney for plaintiffs, concerning the decision of Justice Manuel Mendez to dismiss the case:

"Plaintiffs believe that the decision misunderstands the common law doctrine that prohibits any nonpark use of parkland without the specific and explicit approval of the State Legislature.  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."

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Avella starts petition to stop mall

Sen. Avella's online PETITION to prevent the Willets West mall is here:

Stop the illegal taking of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

Press article:

Avella starts petition in bid to halt Willets Point mall

Op-Ed: City overlooks law in Willets Point project

The following Op-Ed was published by attorney John Low-Beer and State Senator Tony Avella was published by the Daily News:

While the Willets West project, which would consist of a megamall with over 200 retail stores built directly adjacent to Citi Field, may be a developer’s idea of the best thing since sliced bread, the city cannot brazenly ignore the law in giving away 47 acres of parkland for this development.

Courts across the state have long recognized that cities and other governmental entities hold their parks in trust for the public, and cannot sell or lease these valuable resources without a specific law from the state Legislature authorizing such action. This rule is intended to ensure that parkland is not given over for private or commercial purposes without the consent of the people, as represented by their Legislature. No such law has been enacted here.

Listening to the spin from the city’s and the developers’ attorneys in State Supreme Court last week, including former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith Kaye, it is abundantly clear that the city believes it has no obligation to follow the law or protect the parkland that belongs to current and future generations of Queens residents.

The developers and the city painted a beautiful picture of a new community in Willets Point; however, their focus is on the megamall to be built on parkland, not on the housing which must wait, they say, until 2026. Even then, they are under no enforceable obligation to build it, and if, as seems to be the case, it is not sufficiently profitable, they will not do so.

The developers and the city believe this new megamall will provide all the recreation necessary for Queens residents. While shopping may well be a national pastime on par with baseball, as they argued, it does not need government help, nor should it be allowed to displace a family’s ability to enjoy a simple game of tag, or even a ball game, free from commercialization in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

The city’s actions here raise fundamental issues more important than just a shopping mall they have real ramifications in every corner of the five boroughs, especially for anyone concerned with the city’s democratic process, the commercialization of parkland and overdevelopment in our neighborhoods.

We live in a society of laws, and the ends no matter how desirable they may be cannot justify the means that bypassing the legally required consent of the people.

The city must be held accountable and the community must have its say. A more transparent process should commence promptly one that includes the residents and business owners of Queens, as well as all the affected Community Boards (not only those adjacent to Willets Point), the Planning Commission, the City Council, and ultimately, the state Legislature.

State Sen. Tony Avella represents the 11th Senate District in Queens and John Low-Beer is the lead plaintiffs’ attorney fighting the Willets Point Development Project.

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