Friday, May 24, 2013

Queens Community Board 3 nixes Mets mall

CB3 members compete to second the motion to disapprove Willets West mall / Willets Point development
By a wide margin of 30-1 (plus 1 abstention), CB3 voted on Thursday night to disapprove the proposed "Willets West" mall / Willets Point development. The landslide vote endorsed the earlier recommendation, on Tuesday night, of several CB3 committees, and took place after a public hearing on the matter. Reasons for CB3's disapproval include the project's huge and unaddressed traffic congestion and related negative impacts, failure to prioritize housing and a school, overcrowding of subway and bus lines as a consequence of the project, and disregarding the Advisory Committee and Queens officials when selecting the plan and the developers. CB3 concluded: "The proposed project would change the character of the surrounding neighborhoods and impact the livelihoods of 250,000 residents and many small mom-and-pop businesses."

Likely aware of the committees' Tuesday recommendation to disapprove the project, no representative of developers Sterling Equities and Related Companies, or the city, bothered to attend the Thursday night public hearing.

Although CB7 voted last week to approve the same development project by a very slim margin of 22-18 (notoriously, after the CB7 committee had rejected it the week before by a vote of 7-2), the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure ("ULURP") entitles other affected community boards to also evaluate a land use application that "may significantly affect the welfare of the district or borough served by such board". CB3 has exercised that right, and decided to disapprove the application. So at the moment, the Willets West mall / Willets Point development has been approved by CB7 by a very slim margin, and rejected by CB3 almost unanimously. ULURP does not give any greater weight to any particular community board's recommendation – so both boards' recommendations must be equally considered by the next decision-makers.
Donovan Finn speaks during public hearing

Donovan Finn, a former CB3 member and university professor who teaches urban planning, urban policy and environmental design, stated during the public hearing: "There are too many holes in this contract. It is completely designed to make Related and the Wilpons be able to build their mall, build their new parking lot, do a few nice things along the edges of the development, and if they choose – to pay what for them will be a piddly amount of money and walk away. The affordable housing will never get built. … I'm not a psychic, but that's the future I see.

This is not just a vote against a really bad plan, which it is, I think. Something will happen on that site – It just should be something better; it should be something that whoever builds it should come and ask us what we need, and what we think should be there, instead of just deciding and telling us that it's in our best interest."
CB3 Chairperson Marta Lebreton reads committee recommendation
The CB3 Chairperson, Marta Lebreton, read the following statement prior to the board's vote on Thursday night:

"I'm going to read the recommendation that was made on Tuesday night. … ULURP section 203, item (g.), allows for the review and vote on actions not in a community district. Willets Point may be geographically located within Community Board 7, but the proposed action will directly impact more than 250,000 residents in Community Board 3. Our board is merely a couple of blocks from the site, and therefore any and all actions that take place at Willets Point will directly impact the residents of our board.

On Tuesday, May 21, 2013, Community Board 3 convened a joint committee meeting of the business, economic development, parks, land use and traffic/transportation [committees] to review the Willets Point redevelopment project, which includes 'Willets West' [mall] and the Willets Point Special District. After careful review of the proposal, the committee concluded that the plan in its present form be disapproved.

Community Board 3 Queens is opposed to constructing a mall on mapped public parkland; the demolition of the Empire Millwork Corporation building – a historic site listed in the state and national registries; and the proposed development schedule. The plan calls for soil remediation of 23 out of 62 acres of the proposed site, which will be in Phase One of the project. The anticipated completion date would be 2018, when retail and hotel space would be constructed. Affordable housing and the construction of a school would not come until 2028 – ten years later, in Phase 1B. The aforementioned school and housing should be included in the first phase.

The impacts that are not addressed in the current proposal are:

Traffic: Although a commitment was made to provide $1.87 million to establish an infrastructure and traffic mitigation fund for traffic improvements, there was no mention of how traffic congestion would be mitigated in Community Board 3 Queens, particularly at 114th Street, Astoria Boulevard, 34th Avenue, Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Boulevard.

Transit and pedestrians: Community Board 3 Queens will be impacted by the increase of ridership on the subway line number 7 and the bus lines of Q48, Q66 and Q19.

Public health concerns: Community Board 3 Queens has been identified as one of the districts that has the highest incidence of asthma and other respiratory ailments. The applicants report that the increase in traffic would have no impact on Community Board 3 Queens. The increase in traffic volumes will surely adversely affect our fragile constituents. The committee strongly recommends that a complete environmental cleanup on all the acres in Willets Point be conducted, not just in the Special District. Further, cleanup of Flushing Bay and installation of a new sewer system so that Flushing Bay will no longer remain a dumping ground.

Environmental and social justice: The current plans do not consider our community needs, nor acknowledge the impact the proposed plan will have on the commercial and residential displacement of our most vulnerable residents in Community Board 3 Queens.

In conclusion, the Willets Point proposal – the city's largest development project in this section of Queens: The impacts of this major undertaking will affect not only the residents of Community Board 7, but all of the surrounding board areas. In July, 2008, the Borough President's recommendation approved the application with the condition that the Willets Point Advisory Committee be comprised of the Queens Borough President, local elected officials, representatives from Community Boards 3, 4 and 7, and other community leaders, should be continued for the duration of the project, including during developer selection, construction, implementation and all other phases of the Willets Point development. We strongly suggest that the Borough President's recommendation be complied with. Community Board 3 Queens recommends that the application be disapproved as presented. The proposed project would change the character of the surrounding neighborhoods and impact the livelihoods of 250,000 residents and many small mom-and-pop businesses. That is the recommendation of the committee. Do I have a motion – a motion is on the floor. Do I have a second? Okay. Any discussion? Okay; we're going to call the question.

The motion on the floor, seconded by Ed Westley, is to disapprove the application as presented. And we are going to include everything that I read."

A "Yes" vote is for denial.

Vote tally: 30 "Yes" [for denial of the application]; 1 "No"; 1 abstention.