Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Yes, They Really Did Say "Half a Billion Dollars" for Remediation

A contentious point about the proposed Willets Point development has been the alleged need for remediation of the property. Willets Point United Inc. believes that during 2008, the City greatly exaggerated the alleged need for remediation in order to horrify the City Council and provide some basis to approve the land grab involving our property. That the City is now awkwardly backing away from its 2008 claim proves our point.

During a 2008 City Council public hearing, the cost to remediate the entire 62 acres of Willets Point, according to the City, was said to be between $470 million and $570 million – "half a billion dollars", as then-Councilman Hiram Monserrate put it – a large sum that implied a large amount of remediation was required. That a developer would foot such a bill was touted as a benefit of proceeding with the entire proposed project.

Now, five years later, the City's contract with chosen developers Sterling/Related anticipates the cost of remediating one-third of Willets Point (the "Phase One" area) to be just $40 million, or less.
Extrapolated to the full 62 acres of Willets Point, the cost would be $120 million – which is dwarfed by the original $570 million quoted to the City Council during 2008. Moreover, Sterling/Related now won't even pay the $40 million cost – the taxpayers will, by virtue of a grant of taxpayer funds to the developers to cover the remediation. The previously-claimed benefit to the taxpayers – that a developer would pay for and do extensive remediation – has been stood on its head.

A lingering question for the City is: What happened to the $570 million remediation program that was said to be necessary during 2008? What explanation is there, for drastically reducing the cost of remediation from $570 million, to $120 million (or less, per the contract)?

Incredibly, when the issue came up during a committee meeting of Queens Community Board 7 on April 11, 2013, NYCEDC's Tom McKnight tried to create the impression that people are mis-remembering the $570 million figure, and that $570 million somehow was never said. Strange that McKnight would do this now, as he was seated just feet behind then-Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber and NYCEDC President Seth Pinsky at the City Council during 2008 when the discussion of the "half a billion dollars" occurred.

For anyone who doubts this, here is a video clip that shows a portion of the City Council Q&A. At no time does anyone dispute the $570 million remediation cost that is discussed – only how it might be paid.

We emphasize that today, this cost is down to just $40 million for one-third of the site, with the taxpayers – not the developers – paying the bill. The need for remediation is nowhere near what the City Council was told during 2008; and in any case, the cost of paying for it has been shifted from the developers to the taxpayers, and is now a taxpayer liability instead of the benefit we were promised.

See Willets Point United Inc.'s Gerald Antonacci's explanation of this, in our YouTube video ("Willets Point Factual Update") beginning at 9:39 (9 minutes, 39 seconds).

Monday, April 15, 2013

Willets Point Factual Update

Willets Point United's Gerald Antonacci teaches a "master class" concerning the changes to the proposed Willets Point development since 2008, including the free give-aways of tax dollars and properties to developers Sterling Equities and Related Companies, the suspicious delay of the housing component that was previously said to be the linchpin, and the addition of a 1,400,000 square foot "Willets West" mall to be built on mapped parkland. Essential viewing for civic-minded Queens residents.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Willets Point plan: a bad deal in every way

Queens Chronicle OP-ED:

The Willets Point plan: a bad deal in every way
by Benjamin M. Haber

Good and responsible government does not exist in the absence of transparency, and in particular when it involves land use matters which have been notorious in favoring real estate interests and those with political connections. Years ago Daniel Doctoroff, then Mayor Bloomberg’s economic czar, bragged before a group of real estate moguls that under the Bloomberg administration they received about 90 percent of all zoning requests they wanted.

When it comes to transparency the Bloomberg administration earns a failing grade. A case in point is Willets Point. For decades, and most of Mayor Bloomberg’s term in office, the city collected sewer rent from the owners of property in Willets Point, notwithstanding there were no sewers. It collected real estate and other taxes and did not spend any money on the area’s infrastructure.

A body and fender shop’s operations, which for the most part serve the needs of the poor and the middle class, cannot be as spotless as a Bloomingdale’s department store, which makes it all the more important government take care of the infrastructure.

As a coverup for his failure in doing so, Bloomberg declared the site a blight that must go, even though it would mean removing more than 200 small businesses, terminating employment for their 1,000 employees and causing havoc to their thousands of dependents. Cleanup of the so-called blight, which the city will pay for, for the benefit of a developer, could have been done for Willets Point businesses. But it will not be, since they are not real estate moguls with tentacles in the city treasury.

The cost to correct the area and repair the infrastructure, to alienate parkland, free of charge, and to provide subsidies, will be several hundreds of millions of dollars, all to be paid for by taxpayers for the benefit of a private developer. For Bloomberg to allow this taxpayer ripoff ignores his responsibility to be fair and above-board with the public. It’s unacceptable.

It was Bloomberg’s original plan to develop Willets Point into a huge shopping mall, with yet another convention center; luxury housing with a small portion of affordable housing for the middle class; a small park and a school. Building a school next door to LaGuardia Airport, the Mets’ stadium, the United States Tennis Association and a huge mall would be absurd, a feigned icing on the cake to make it appear the proposal was not a private commercial development, but a needed public undertaking.

Willets Point and its surrounding areas have automobile access only through the Van Wyck Expressway, Grand Central Parkway, Northern Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue, private streets being out of the question. These arteries have been and are choked to capacity. Queens was ranked as having one of the most congested vehicular arteries in the country and there is no way — I repeat, no way — to increase their capacity to absorb the tens of thousands of additional vehicles the Bloomberg plan would bring.

Faced with a vehicular nightmare and unable to come up with a solution, Mayor Bloomberg has devised what can be described as the mother of all lack of transparencies. The original Willets Point plan has suddenly been split into two phases. His much-heralded original Willets Point plan is now relegated to phase two, which for all practical purposes will be on the back burner and probably not accomplished for decades.

The reason for the so-called split is not just the vehicular problem, but Bloomberg’s desire to help out his billionaire friend Fred Wilpon, the owner of the Mets, who have not being doing well financially. Phase one will allow Wilpon to move his parking lots — which are on parkland, as is Citi Field — to Willets Point and to construct a huge mall on the current Mets parking lots. Parking in Willets Point and the mall will not address the vehicular problem, but will destroy the small businesses on Northern Boulevard, Roosevelt Avenue and 108th Street, the malls in Rego Park and on 20th Avenue in Whitestone, and the shops in downtown Flushing. Were I in business in any of those areas, I would hesitate to sign a long-term lease. Unless these merchants and the public make known to the mayor, their City Council members and community boards their opposition, the mayor’s plans will be a fait accompli.

Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said he wished to be remembered for what he did for the poor and not for the rich. Notwithstanding some laudable philanthropic acts Bloomberg has accomplished as a private individual, as mayor he has viewed his constituents as the wealthy and powerful and not the poor and middle class. I do not believe he will leave a legacy as noteworthy as that of President Roosevelt.

Benjamin M. Haber is a civic activist and retired attorney who lives in Flushing.