Tuesday, April 27, 2010

WPU's fight spotlighted in the NY Times

From the NY Times:

It is one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s signature projects — the sweeping transformation of Willets Point, a slice of Queens that has long been among the city’s most neglected pieces of real estate. And a little over a year ago, it seemed like a done deal.

The City Council approved the proposal, which would sweep aside the car-repair shops, junkyards and small factories in the shadow of Citi Field to make room for 5,500 apartments, parks, office buildings, stores, restaurants and a hotel.

Many of the largest property owners agreed to sell to the city, and the city could use eminent domain to force out those who refused.

But a convergence of a Park Avenue lawyer known for toppling big projects, a sawdust maker bent on keeping the family business where it has been for decades, and a pair of highway ramps that exist only on paper threatens to doom Mr. Bloomberg’s grand vision.

The ramps, which would connect Willets Point to the Van Wyck Expressway, seemed like a minor detail at first and never came up during the noisy public hearings before the Council’s vote.

But, as it turns out, they are critical to the project’s survival.

“It’s our smoking gun,” said Michael B. Gerrard, a lawyer who helped lead the monumental battle to defeat Westway, a proposed underground highway along Manhattan’s West Side that opponents said would have imperiled the striped bass population of the lower Hudson River.

Mr. Gerrard, a senior counsel at Arnold & Porter, is now banking on the ramps to kill Willets Point. He has mounted a legal challenge against the project on behalf of a group of small landowners in the area who joined forces and pooled their money to fight City Hall.

The $3 billion project could generate 80,000 vehicle trips a day, and the ramps are meant to help move cars in and out. The city cannot use eminent domain unless the ramps are approved by the Federal Highway Administration and the state’s Department of Transportation.