Thursday, August 2, 2012

Willets Point Hits the Wal

As if the development at Willets Point didn't have enough problems now we find out that Wal-Mart is trawling for a site in the development area. As the NY Daily News reports:

"Walmart is launching a stealth campaign to build one of its mega stores in the Willets Point redevelopment, sources said. The company and the developer remain tight-lipped, but the giant retailer has been lobbying behind the scenes to get a toe-hold in the Willets West retail and entertainment complex, which is slated to be built just west of Citi Field as part of a larger, neighborhood renewal.

“They were looking at Willets Point as a possibility for a new site in New York,” said one elected official, who asked not to be named, but said he is opposed to the idea. Another elected official, who also did not want to be named, said the company had been courting support."

This is becoming like Olympic diving with the developers looking to score more points because of the degree of difficulty. Can you imagine what the traffic would be like with the world's biggest auto-dependent retailer next to a baseball field? Still, political opposition remains fairly strong-and even the project's biggest booster thinks this isn't a good idea. Wal-Mart is trying hard, however, and its charm offensive makes the Pinsky effort look childish:

I can’t think of a worse tenant,” said state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing). “Walmart’s track record of abusing workers . . . is legendary." Stavisky’s opinion of Walmart could be based on prior company practices, suggested Walmart spokesman Steve Restivo. Walmart wages and benefits now “meet or exceed those offered by a majority of our competitors in New York City,” he said.

Walmart also offers competitive prices, Restivo added. “We think our stores can be part of the solution for folks who want a job or need more affordable grocery options close to where they live or work,” he said

From the perspective of the developer we get the following caution: "A spokesman for the partnership said that large-scale stores are not “anticipated” for the enclosed Willets West complex. And sources close to Related denied that the company was in talks with Walmart over the Willets Point site."

Here we get to the nub of the problem. The council left this development up to EDC when it gave its carte blanche vote away in 2008. Now it is going to have to really assert its oversight authority-especially since Seth Pinsky has been babbling about there being no need for any new ULURP. But read the above quote from the developer very carefully-"...large scale stores are not 'anticipated'..."

Remember the Kingsbridge Armory? That's where the developer-Related once again-simply ignored the RFP for non competing stores and decided that a food box store right next to Morty Sloan's supermarket would be just fine. And it was right up until the entire project went up in flames. The lesson? Don't believe a single word a developer says, get everything in writing. Remember Gateway in Brooklyn?

The lesson here is that there has been way to much sleight-of-hand involved in this Willets Point project-where transparency has been the first causality (try getting information from EDC-even with a FOIA request). There is a need for a comprehensive oversight hearing on Willets Point-even before any EDC sponsored land use request. That oversight should include:

(1) An examination of the illegal lobbying and how it came about;

(2) The propriety of Sterling Equities being awarded the bid for the first phase;

(3) The drastic alteration of the project and is feasibility;

(4) Overall costs of the project and the use of tax payer money;

(5) The propriety of conveying land at no cost to Sterling Equities-a member of the Shulman LDC that illegally lobbied;

(6) The reliability of traffic studies done by Eng Won Taub and URS-both contracted for by AKRF-that put forward wildly different traffic estimates for the ramps and local roads;

(7) The need for an new and independent traffic study to determine whether or not it is feasible to build 900,000 square feet of mall without the ramps in place;

(8) The propriety of using parkland that hasn't been alienated to build a mall.

We probably left some things out but you get the picture. This entire project has become like the Augean Stables-and without Hercules we wonder how it is ever going to be cleaned up.