Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Op-ed by State Senator Tony Avella

New York City scraps word on Willets Point redevelopment project land grab
by State Senator Tony Avella

Recently, the city announced that it would commence eminent domain proceedings against nine Willets Point businesses in what has been described as Phase I of the overall plan to redevelop the 62 acres known as the Iron Triangle.

What is particularly distressing about that announcement is that the city, through the Economic Development Corporation, is once again going back on its word.

As a former member of the City Council, I - along with many of my colleagues - was concerned that the use of eminent domain in this instance was an abuse of the process. Eminent domain should only be used to take private property for a specific public benefit not, as in the case of Willets Point, to turn the property over to a private developer who will make millions. Where is the public benefit?

I voted against the project for this reason and other deficiencies in the proposal. Unfortunately, the Council sided with the mayor and approved this land grab.

Following the city's approval, Willets Point United, a group organized by area business owners, hired a traffic consultant, Brian Ketcham, to review the city's environmental review of the impact this massive project would create. It was discovered that the city, in order to mitigate very serious traffic congestion issues, had proposed the creation of several ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway.

The city had argued in the environmental review that the ramps were the linchpin of the project, primarily because the development was estimated to generate 80,000 car trips a day. Without the ramps, the Willets Point development would overwhelm local streets and would be environmentally unmanageable. Nowhere in any of the environmental documents was there a scenario whereby the project in whole or in part could proceed without these crucial ramps.

However, the ramp design is faulty, and necessary approval from the state Department of Transportation has not been forthcoming.

As part of public comments, EDC had promised that eminent domain would be used only as a last resort, and it would not be used prior to the approval of the ramps. Well, despite the unresolved ramp issue, EDC is moving to condemn family-owned businesses.

In essence, EDC, stymied by a difficult state and federal approval process, is looking to make an end run around this impasse and create an entirely new project - one that has never been properly reviewed by the Council.

In my view, this is a complete violation of the land use review process and requisites that the Council approved in 2008. EDC alleges that the ramps are not necessary for the first phase of the project, a phase that encompasses 20 acres and will include, according to EDC, a retail corridor, hotel and housing. But since no study was done on this partial development, the assertions of EDC are without merit or credibility.

There is simply no way that the city can argue that the first phase does not need these ramps. As a result, the only credible alternative is for the Council to demand a new environmental review and a completely new land use application to determine if what EDC is arguing has any validity. The public must have an opportunity to comment on this new plan.

The city is facing a severe fiscal crisis, with huge budget cuts and layoffs that appear to be unavoidable. In this fiscal environment, putting aside all the contradictions and bad faith coming out of EDC, can the city now afford to spend billions of dollars to buy out local businesses? Even if the city is successful in this land grab, development is years off and will probably take decades. In the interim, jobs will be lost and the city will lose the tax revenue from all the businesses that it will have forced to close.

The entire Willets Point development has taken a turn for the worse. It now needs to be reevaluated in light of the city's current fiscal situation and the questionable nature of the ability of the project to mitigate huge and potentially disastrous environmental impacts.

If this reevaluation doesn't occur, the city is in grave danger of bequeathing to future generations an empty field and significant loss of business/sales tax revenue.

Tony Avella, a Democrat, represents the 11th District in the New York State Senate.

Printed in the Daily News today.