Monday, November 10, 2014


MONDAY, November 10, 2014
CONTACT: Heather K. Sager


(QUEENS, NY) Today, State Senator Tony Avella is calling on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to deny the Queens Development Group’s (QDG) application for Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP) tax credits on its Willets Point Phase One property.

Approximately a year ago, QDG entered a contract with the NYC Economic Development Corporation which requires the QDG to clean up the property. As part of this agreement, the QDG received a capital grant commitment of taxpayer funds for $99 million, of which $40 million is intended to pay these cleanup costs. 

However, it was not long after QDG applied to the Brownfield Program, to try to obtain additional tax credits to clean up the property.

The Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP) provides substantial tax credits to land developers to encourage the remediation and clean up of Brownfield sites. It was developed by the State in order to offset the costs of clean-up of the sites. An example of the amount of previous awards under the BCP is the $44 million awarded to the developers of the East River Plaza in Manhattan. 

After learning of QDG’s application, Senator Avella, along with advocacy group Willets Point United, immediately contacted the DEC to intervene. In a recent response letter, the DEC stated that the agency believes that, "The public interest is served by allowing these properties to participate in the BCP." The DEC also wrote in its response, "The fact that a property may be redeveloped without the incentives of the BCP does not preclude it from being eligible for the program."

“The Queens Development Group has already been promised $40 million in taxpayer funds to offset the costs of cleaning up Willets Point Phase One. Now, the QDG is attempting to take advantage of the BCP tax credit program by trying to apply for millions in tax credits for costs that will already be paid from the taxpayer’s pocket. It’s absolutely disgraceful,” said Senator Avella. “The DEC’s response is alarming, as it completely disregards the fact that the QDG is already required to clean up the site, and will already be receiving taxpayer funds to do so. Wasting taxpayer money by giving funds to developers who are already receiving clean-up related capital grants is not the intention of the Brownfield Credit Program.”

Friday, October 31, 2014

Meeting at Department of State

Albany, New York:  Members of Willets Point United Inc. (“WPU”) held a meeting with the New York State Committee on Open Government’s Executive Director, attorney Robert Freeman, and its Assistant Director, attorney Camille Jobin-Davis, at the Committee’s office.

Joseph Ardizzone (WPU), Robert Freeman, Esq. (Committee Executive Director),
Camille Jobin-Davis, Esq. (Committee Assistant Director) and Irene Prestigiacomo
(WPU) at the office of the NYS Committee on Open Government.

The Committee on Open Government is a unit of the Department of State that oversees and advises the government, public, and news media on the Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”), Open Meetings Law and Personal Privacy Protection Law.

WPU routinely files FOIL requests with agencies involved in the proposed Willets Point development, seeking project records that would not otherwise be publicly disclosed – and has filed scores of such requests within the past several years. In pursuing our requests and associated appeals when access to records is denied, WPU has benefitted from the Committee’s advice and its written legal opinions regarding agencies’ obligations pursuant to FOIL, which records are available under FOIL, and many other crucial factors.

The recent meeting between WPU and Committee members allowed a face-to-face exchange of ideas concerning certain pending FOIL requests. Moreover, the meeting provided an opportunity to discuss ways in which FOIL could be strengthened to benefit the public – all while acknowledging that this year marks the 40th Anniversary of FOIL’s enactment into law. We were also very pleased to summarize for the Committee how WPU has leveraged FOIL over the years, obtaining records that have become the bases of many news reports and that have exposed corruption, among other results.

FOIL resulted in the disclosure of contracts, financial documents and communications showing (among many other things) that NYCEDC funneled $450,000.00 to Claire Shulman’s local development corporation, and instructed it to lobby for legislation authorizing the proposed Willets Point development – in direct violation of state law, as ultimately found by NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. That resulted in the dissolution and restructuring of NYCEDC to ensure that it stops violating the law – but no person has been held to account for any of the prior illegal activity. To the contrary, at least one NYCEDC official who – according to a city Law Department attorney – the Attorney General’s office was “trying to set up for a criminal prosecution” has not actually been prosecuted.

Article accessible online here.

In response to a FOIL request, NYCEDC refused to even disclose just the names of the developer firms that had responded to the Request For Proposals pertaining to Phase One of Willets Point. At the time, the Committee’s Robert Freeman told the press: “I don’t see any conceivable basis for withholding these names.” (See our prior blog article.)

FOIL unearthed records showing that Sterling Equities and Related Companies originally wanted to construct a gambling casino on the parkland where they now say they will construct a mega-mall – even going as far as enlisting the Shinnecock Indian Nation to operate the casino. For all the public knows, Sterling and Related may still be pursuing their original, preferred intent to construct a gambling casino on the parkland. That would hardly be the first bait-and-switch in this development.

Article accessible online here.

FOIL obtained the contracts between NYCEDC and developers Sterling/Related, showing (among other things) that the Bloomberg administration reneged on its assurance to recoup the cost of acquiring Willets Point Phase One property – $400+ million taxpayer dollars – and instead arranged to gift the property to Sterling/Related for the price of $1 (one dollar). The same contracts show that housing at Willets Point – originally the most highly-touted component – is delayed until at least the year 2025, and that Sterling/Related may opt out of constructing housing by paying $35 million (a mere cost of doing business); and that if the city does not first construct expensive new access ramps to and from the Van Wyck Expressway, Sterling/Related will neither construct any housing nor pay any penalty.

Article accessible online here.

FOIL disclosed the approved schematic plans for the entire Willets Point Phase One / Willets West mega-mall – plans which developers Sterling/Related still have not presented during any meeting with Queens Community Board 7, although they are required to do so, according to the board’s District Manager.

FOIL yielded records showing that NYSDOT officials were being pressured to approve inadequate plans to construct new Van Wyck access ramps – based upon traffic data that differed suspiciously from data previously proffered to the New York City Council. Michael Bergmann, a NYSDOT structural engineer on the team that reviewed the City’s ramp application, wrote to the NYSDOT regional director and colleagues: “Unless the preparers of this report start accepting the idea that it is seriously flawed, we are going nowhere.” Peter King, a NYSDOT project manager, wrote: “If I were a betting man, I’d start dropping the odds regarding success for E.D.C. on this project,” and that a mistaken completion date of the year 2107 instead of 2017 “may have been closer to the truth than anyone realizes.” After WPU obtained these email records and traffic data, and after WPU’s traffic expert Brian Ketcham and its environmental attorney Michael Gerrard of Arnold & Porter intervened with NYSDOT and FHWA, NYCEDC withdrew its ramp application, resulting in a long delay while NYCEDC’s consultant reconsidered its traffic data. Neither Mr. Ketcham nor Mr. Gerrard is satisfied that the ramps have been properly evaluated, and to this day, the ramps remain an open and contentious issue.

Without FOIL, it is unlikely that the public would have ever known any of the above-described facts.

WPU is a staunch supporter of FOIL, and we wholeheartedly salute the work of the Committee on Open Government and its two mainstays, Robert Freeman and Camille Jobin-Davis, in helping to ensure that FOIL is properly implemented by agencies. In all our dealings with so many city and state agencies, we have seen none other that is as genuinely helpful and responsive as the Committee on Open Government. This is one place where we are pleased to see our tax dollars at work and used well.

Emphasizing the importance of public records and open meetings, Mr. Freeman, the Committee’s Executive Director, is fond of quoting Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” As our meeting concluded, Mr. Freeman reminded us of that quotation.

In the same spirit, WPU vows to continue to leverage FOIL and other laws, to discredit, incriminate and fight our opponents.

Joseph Ardizzone (WPU) and Irene Prestigiacomo (WPU),
outside of the NYS Committee on Open Government.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Support letters and CB7 resolution

Letters Parkland Lawsuit

Ben Haber had a lengthy letter published in a Queens weekly, regarding the status of the lawsuit challenging the Willets West mall. The following week, another letter-writer agreed with Haber. Attached are both of the letters.

These were distributed at the Borough Board meeting this past Monday.

CB7 Parkland Resolution 140908

During its meeting on Sept. 8, Queens Community Board 7 adopted the attached resolution pertaining to parkland alienation, with minor
corrections (mostly typo fixes) made before the vote. Manhattan CB6 had previously adopted a similar resolution.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Willets West case dismissed; attorney issues official statement

Justice Manuel Mendez, NYS Supreme Court, NY District, has issued his decision to dismiss the lawsuit brought by plaintiffs Sen. Tony Avella, City Club of New York, Queens Civic Congress and others, challenging the plan of Queens Development Group LLC to construct a 1.4 million square foot mega-mall on 40+ acres of Queens parkland.
Justice Manuel Mendez, who has
decided that the Willets West mega-mall
can be built on 40+ acres of Queens
parkland. Photo by Rafael Fern├índez.
Justice Mendez concludes that the 1961 authorization to construct Shea Stadium also allows construction of the mega-mall on parkland.

Below is the official statement of John Low-Beer, attorney for plaintiffs, concerning the decision of Justice Manuel Mendez to dismiss the case:

"Plaintiffs believe that the decision misunderstands the common law doctrine that prohibits any nonpark use of parkland without the specific and explicit approval of the State Legislature.  The State Legislature, when it passed the 1961 law permitting the construction of Shea Stadium, did not intend to allow construction of a shopping mall.  That law did not allow the construction of anything except a stadium and related facilities on the site.  Plaintiffs will appeal, and believe that this decision will be reversed on appeal."

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Avella starts petition to stop mall

Sen. Avella's online PETITION to prevent the Willets West mall is here:

Stop the illegal taking of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

Press article:

Avella starts petition in bid to halt Willets Point mall

Op-Ed: City overlooks law in Willets Point project

The following Op-Ed was published by attorney John Low-Beer and State Senator Tony Avella was published by the Daily News:

While the Willets West project, which would consist of a megamall with over 200 retail stores built directly adjacent to Citi Field, may be a developer’s idea of the best thing since sliced bread, the city cannot brazenly ignore the law in giving away 47 acres of parkland for this development.

Courts across the state have long recognized that cities and other governmental entities hold their parks in trust for the public, and cannot sell or lease these valuable resources without a specific law from the state Legislature authorizing such action. This rule is intended to ensure that parkland is not given over for private or commercial purposes without the consent of the people, as represented by their Legislature. No such law has been enacted here.

Listening to the spin from the city’s and the developers’ attorneys in State Supreme Court last week, including former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith Kaye, it is abundantly clear that the city believes it has no obligation to follow the law or protect the parkland that belongs to current and future generations of Queens residents.

The developers and the city painted a beautiful picture of a new community in Willets Point; however, their focus is on the megamall to be built on parkland, not on the housing which must wait, they say, until 2026. Even then, they are under no enforceable obligation to build it, and if, as seems to be the case, it is not sufficiently profitable, they will not do so.

The developers and the city believe this new megamall will provide all the recreation necessary for Queens residents. While shopping may well be a national pastime on par with baseball, as they argued, it does not need government help, nor should it be allowed to displace a family’s ability to enjoy a simple game of tag, or even a ball game, free from commercialization in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

The city’s actions here raise fundamental issues more important than just a shopping mall they have real ramifications in every corner of the five boroughs, especially for anyone concerned with the city’s democratic process, the commercialization of parkland and overdevelopment in our neighborhoods.

We live in a society of laws, and the ends no matter how desirable they may be cannot justify the means that bypassing the legally required consent of the people.

The city must be held accountable and the community must have its say. A more transparent process should commence promptly one that includes the residents and business owners of Queens, as well as all the affected Community Boards (not only those adjacent to Willets Point), the Planning Commission, the City Council, and ultimately, the state Legislature.

State Sen. Tony Avella represents the 11th Senate District in Queens and John Low-Beer is the lead plaintiffs’ attorney fighting the Willets Point Development Project.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Developer Hires Retired Top Judge to Defend Mega-Mall on Queens Parkland

Queens Development Group (“QDG”) is pulling out all the legal stops to defend its outrageous plan to use 40+ acres of Queens park land to construct a 1.4 million square foot mega-mall called “Willets West” – going as far as to hire judicial juggernaut Judith Kaye, the former Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York state, to advocate for the mega-mall in court proceedings.

Appearance on The Open Mind;
accessible online at: https://archive.

As readers may recall, QDG’s plan to construct Willets West on Queens park land next to Citi Field was dictated by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a closed process that totally circumvented the promised involvement of the Willets Point Advisory Committee, chaired at the time by Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. Willets West never directly underwent any other public approval process. A lawsuit filed this year by City Club of New York, State Senator Tony Avella, Queens Civic Congress, several members of Willets Point United Inc., New York City Park Advocates and nearby residents/business owners asserts that Willets West cannot proceed and is illegal, because it lacks approval from the New York State legislature that is required when park land is appropriated for non-park use, and because Willets West also lacks approval through the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. In essence, the lawsuit challenges the give-away of Queens park land to developers as dictated by Michael Bloomberg.

Developer QDG claims that authorizations granted in 1961 relating to the construction of Shea Stadium are all that is necessary now to build the Willets West mega-mall on adjacent Queens park land.

Queens Development Group is a joint venture of The Related Companies and Sterling Equities (whose owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz also own the New York Mets).

The court case, Sen. Tony Avella v. City of New York, is pending before Justice Manuel Mendez in New York State Supreme Court. Oral argument will take place on July 30, 2014 at 2:15PM at 71 Thomas Street, Room 210.

QDG must be so nervous about the prospect of an adverse court decision, that it has resorted to bringing in the ultimate New York judicial juggernaut – former Chief Judge Judith Kaye – to attempt to persuade the court to see things QDG’s way. Frankly, we think this is also a not-so-subtle attempt to intimidate Justice Mendez into siding with QDG, and to make it uncomfortable for him to do otherwise. After all, the legal issues raised by this case are clear-cut, and could be very well presented by any competent attorney who doesn’t happen to be a former Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. What, then, does QDG gain by retaining former Chief Judge Judith Kaye for this case?

Well, for Justice Mendez to rule in favor of Plaintiffs/Petitioners (against QDG and Willets West), he would have to disagree with not just any QDG lawyer, but with Judith Kaye, former Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. It is as if the former Chief Judge is telling Justice Mendez on behalf of QDG: “I find that this mega-mall is legal and may proceed. Who are you to disagree with me, the former Chief Judge at this state’s highest court, two levels above yours?”

With all due respect, it should be noted that Justice Mendez is at the Supreme Court – the lowest level of trial court in New York State. Above that is the Appellate Division. And above that is the Court of Appeals, where Judith Kaye was an Associate Judge from 1983 through 1993, and then Chief Judge for 15 years from 1993 through 2008, when she retired because of age restrictions. She is now of counsel, and apparently for hire, at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP.

American Judicial Society; public domain
image accessible online at:
We also note that Judith Kaye was first appointed to the Court of Appeals, and later designated its Chief Judge, by then-Governor Mario Cuomo – the same Mario Cuomo who, in 2012, brokered settlement talks on behalf of Mets owners including Fred Wilpon who were involved in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard had sued the Wilpons to recover $386 million in swindle profits. Cuomo not only reduced the amount the Wilpons owe to $162 million, but also got Picard to drop his claim that the Wilpons were willfully blind to Madoff’s fraud. Now, Cuomo friend Judith Kaye is assisting the Wilpons’ Sterling Equities to lay claim to 40+ acres of Queens park land, to supplant it with a mega-mall.

We pray that Justice Manuel Mendez sees right through QDG’s attempt to strong-arm his decision in the Willets West matter by inserting former Chief Judge Judith Kaye into the case – and that Justice Mendez will have the fortitude to disregard undue pressure and render a decision that is based, as it should be, on the relevant facts and law.

We also wonder how Judith Kaye sleeps at night, knowing that she has made herself and her symbolic influence available in service of development on park land that is opposed by, among others, the Queens Civic Congress as well as the community board located closest to the proposed site – development that has been foisted upon the people of Queens by a former Mayor who even abrogated written promises to involve the Willets Point Advisory Committee in developer selection.

The proposed Willets Point development has already had much more than its fair share of scandal, including illegal lobbying for the project by Claire Shulman’s local development corporation (“LDC”) and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (“NYCEDC”), as determined by Attorney General Schneiderman, which required the complete corporate re-structuring of NYCEDC so that it may comply with the law in the future; the provision of City funds to Shulman’s LDC in support of illegal lobbying activities; the leveraging of eminent domain to coerce sales of private property, and initiating eminent domain not for any essential public purpose, but to facilitate private development; the gifting by then-Mayor Bloomberg of 23 acres of Willets Point Phase One property, acquired at a cost to City taxpayers in excess of $250 million, to QDG for the price of $1 (one dollar), contrary to the administration’s promise to recoup the high cost of property acquisition via the eventual sale of the property to the developer; provision of a grant of taxpayer funds totaling $99 million to QDG to pay its development costs; provision of a tax credit in the amount of $43 million to QDG; appraising the Willets West site to have a value of “negative $35.4 million,” even though the site consists of virgin land that QDG insists is clean and uncontaminated; QDG’s filing of its brownfield application with New York State without informing Queens Community Board 7 (“CB7”), contrary to QDG’s agreement with CB7; to name a few. To that sorry list we now add QDG’s hiring of judicial juggernaut Judith Kaye for the purpose of ensuring the undemocratic give-away of Queens park land.

We give the last word to public sentiment concerning the proposed Willets West mega-mall:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Willets West oral arguments 7/30

Who: Petitioners/Plaintiffs and Respondents/Defendants
in the matter of Sen. Tony Avella v. City of New York
Index number 100161/2014

What: Oral argument in New York State Supreme Court

When: July 30, 2014 at 2:15PM

Where: 71 Thomas Street
New York, New York 10013
Courtroom of Justice Manuel Mendez / Part 13 / Room 210

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Letter: Willets Point plan paid off only for developers

Letter to the editor of the Times Ledger:

TimesLedger Newspapers’ recent Queens Tomorrow magazine includes the article “Willets shops look for home” and contains a rendering of what purports to be the 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall slated for the current parking lot adjacent to Citi Field.

With all due respect, the public is entitled to a clearer picture of what is involved.

Claiming Willets Point was a blighted area ignores the fact that the blight, if any, was caused by the city collecting sewer rent from the area’s owners when there were no sewers and other taxes without addressing the area’s infrastructure. The Bloomberg administration decided the 225 small businesses in the area, with their hundreds of employees, had to go to be replaced by a development said at the time to include retail shops, a school, a convention center and luxury housing with a portion set aside for affordable housing.

The preliminary presentation went before Community Board 7, since the area was within its jurisdiction. CB 7 approved the application in no small part because of the inclusion of affordable housing and because then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg assured the board it would have input in the selection of the project’s developer.

Bloomberg reneged on his promise and the board had no input or knowledge of who the developer was until it was a fait accompli.

One of the several developers interested in the project was Related Cos. and Sterling Equities, affiliated with the Wilpons, owners of the New York Mets, the lease holder of Citi Field. Subsequent developments suggest they were the selected developers and had little interest in the project as approved in 2008.

What they really wanted was to have included a gaming casino and, when it appeared that was never going to happen, the project became dormant until 2012, at which time they came up with a new plan.

They sought what they claimed was a slight change in the approved 2008 plan. They wanted permission to have constructed in Willets Point a large parking lot. Not a significant change until it became clear there was an elephant in the room. They wanted the parking lot so they could transfer the Citi Field parking lot to Willets Point and on the vacated Citi Field parking lot construct a 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall, that to be done notwithstanding the Citi Field parking lot is on Flushing Meadows Corona Park land, and bypass Uniform Land Use Review Procedure and park land alienation requirements.

The City Council, which consistently views large real estate interests as their true constituents and the public be damned, approved the application. As bad as it was for the Council to ignore the bypassing of ULURP and park alienation requirements, the deal was so financially outrageous as to make the misdeeds of Boss Tweed a simple panhandler.

The 2012 deal the City went along with involved the sale of the Willets Point property, which the city acquired for tens of millions of dollars, to the billionaire developers for $1 — a subsidy of $99 million and a tax abatement of about $50 million.

As nefarious as all this was, it was just the tip of the iceberg. The Council went along with the developers’ priority. The developers would construct the Willets Point parking lot and, freeing up the Citi Field parking lot, it would enable them to proceed with their 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall.

The least priority, which one would recall was an important linchpin in the approved 2008 plan, was affordable housing. Under the 2012 plan, affordable housing was put on the back burner and will not be accomplished until 2025, if at all. Apart from the fact that that would be 17 years after it was approved in 2008, I say “if at all,” because it will never happen.

The plan approved gives the developers the right to withdraw from Willets Point by forfeiting something like $35 million. As greedy as Related Cos., Sterling Equities and the Wilpons are, they are astute business people, not stupid. After spending billions on the mall, a penalty to walk away from affordable housing, a financial loser, for about $35 million dollars is pennies. Walk is what will happen.

If stupidity in elective office were a crime, the past and current Council members who approved this abomination would be in trouble. It is to be noted that litigation is pending to let right be done and undo the above. One hopes the courts will do so.

Benjamin Haber

Monday, April 28, 2014

2nd meeting set for CB7 and Queens Development Group

WPU Information for CB7 QDG Meeting 140428

The second quarterly meeting between Queens Community Board 7 ("CB7") and Queens Development Group ("QDG," the designated developer of Willets Point Phase One and the Willets West mega-mall on parkland) will take place on Wednesday, April 30, 2014 at 7:30PM at the Union Plaza Care Center, 33-23 Union Street, 9th Floor, Flushing.

At the prior quarterly meeting last October, Willets Point United Inc. ("WPU") exposed that QDG had already filed a brownfield application with NYSDEC on August 8, 2013, without informing CB7 that it had done so – a direct violation of CB7's first condition to its May 13, 2013 approval of the Willets Point special permit sought by QDG: "The Joint Venture [QDG] agreed to alert CB#7 when all applications are made to NYS DEC."

WPU also exposed that QDG had deliberately omitted from its brownfield application numerous Willets Point properties that, by QDG's own definition, should be most in need of remediation via the brownfield program. Following intervention by WPU and State Senator Tony Avella, QDG recently amended its brownfield application to include the previously omitted properties.

QDG's project is challenged by two pending lawsuits, one of which was filed by Senator Avella, City Club of New York, Queens Civic Congress, Inc., NYC Park Advocates, and interested residents and business owners. A rally held on March 22, 2014 in support of the lawsuit and against QDG's proposed Willets West mall was attended by Petitioners as well as members of the Bay Terrace Community Alliance, Bellerose Commonwealth Civic Association, Bellerose Hillside Civic Association, Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together (COMET), Flushing Meadows Corona Park Conservancy, Flushing on the Hill Civic Association, Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Civic Association, Hillcrest Estates Civic Association, Holly Civic Association, Jackson Heights Beautification Group, Juniper Park Civic Association, Kew Garden Hills Tenant Association, Kissena Park Civic Association, Queens Civic Congress, Queens Community Board 3, Queens Community Board 7, Queens Community Board 8, Queens Community Board 13 and WPU.

Despite such community opposition to QDG's project, elected officials and agencies continue to look the other way. For his part, new Mayor Bill de Blasio has shown no sign that he will prevent QDG from constructing a 1.4 million square foot shopping mall on Flushing Meadows Corona Park property.

Please see the attached information prepared by WPU in advance of Wednesday night's meeting.

Yours truly,

Willets Point United Inc.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Read Brian Ketcham's Daily News op ed

Brian Ketcham
The following is an excerpt from Brian Ketcham's recent op-ed in the Daily News:

"The folks at Willets Point United hired me to investigate the traffic and transit implications of this project. I’m a transportation and environmental engineer with decades of experience. What I found was that the project would generate so much traffic that it would gridlock local access roads and surrounding expressways. I also found that the EDC environmental impact statement was replete with erroneous assumptions, bad data, and outright falsehoods.

The project has gone ahead nonetheless, and the EDC handed over the development rights — behind closed doors — to Sterling Equities, a $4.6 billion real estate company and owner of the New York Mets. Sterling Equities teamed with The Related Companies, one of New York’s richest and most powerful developers, to form the Queens Development Group, which became the final recipient of the development rights for Willets Point.

The project has required massive public subsidies: $250 million for 23 acres of land at the site; $35 million for sewer construction; more than $66 million for the construction of new highway ramps; almost $100 million in a grant of taxpayer funds to the Queens Development Group; $42 million in direct financial assistance to the developer-a total of $536 million ponied up by taxpayers.

Today, the threat of redevelopment and eminent domain seizure has already driven out many of the businesses that once thrived in the Willets Point neighborhood. Few of the displaced businesses have successfully relocated.

For this reason 33 owners of Willets Point businesses filed suit in February 2014 against the EDC, Sterling Equities, The Related Companies, and the Queens Development Group. The lawsuit alleges that “there was no lawful relocation plan for current commercial tenants,” that “the relocation assistance has been ineffective,” and that the city’s failure to implement a legitimate relocation plan is a violation of federal law.

Eliminating taxpayer support for a billionaire’s boondoggle like the Willets Point Project will not make much of a dent in the level of extreme inequality in New York City. But it would make a statement that it is time to take a stand and help the working poor defend against the depredations of the rich."

Rally against the Willets West shopping mall on public parkland

Video of full speakers' statements at last Saturday's rally opposing the "Willets West" mall on parkland. Provided by LoScalzo Media Design LLC; copyright 2014

Read about the rally at the Queens Chronicle's website.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Fact-Checking the Wall Street Journal

Today's Wall Street Journal has a puff-piece announcing that certain Willets Point tenant businesses – members of the "Sunrise Cooperative" – will be relocating to a site in the Bronx.

What's interesting is that nowhere in the lengthy WSJ article is there any mention of the fact that Sunrise and its members had to resort to filing a lawsuit on February 4, 2014 against the City, NYCEDC and the developers, in order to force the City to assist as necessary in the Bronx deal. (Our take on that lawsuit is here.)

The Sunrise lawsuit asserts, among other things, that the City's failure to implement a meaningful relocation program violates federal law. The suit also argues that the court should "order the IDA to withdraw its financial award to the Developers since it failed to comply with its Uniform Tax Exemption Policy." The amount of that IDA financial award? A cool $43 million. It's easy to see why the Sunrise lawsuit focussed the City's attention and forced it to the table. Without the threat posed by that lawsuit, there would be no Bronx relocation.

As Sunrise leader Marco Neira recently told the Times Ledger newspaper: "We have to go through the court to get a settlement with them."

We think it's disingenuous of the WSJ to publish a lengthy article concerning the Sunrise relocation – including an excerpt of an interview with Sunrise's legal counsel – without reporting that a lawsuit was the necessary catalyst to the relocation deal.

Moreover, the WSJ states that "a group of 40 to 60 businesses has signed a lease" to move to the Bronx. And yet, the Sunrise Cooperative identified only 33 Sunrise members within the court papers filed for its lawsuit. And of those 33, several that we spoke with today said that they have NOT agreed to relocate to the Bronx, and that they were NOT informed that Sunrise signed any lease for a site in the Bronx.

We understand that last year, NYCEDC established a Co-Relocation Fund that offers up to $45,000.00 to each Willets Point tenant business that relocates together in a group of five or more to a common site. It seems to us that powers-that-be may be intending to pool funds that would be available to each Sunrise business under the Co-Relocation Fund, and use the combined amount to afford the Bronx lease deal. If that is the case, then it is significant that Sunrise members with whom we spoke today have not agreed to relocate to the Bronx, and have not agreed to pool any $45,000.00 to which they may be entitled. The slightest research by the WSJ or its reporter, Laura Kusisto, would have revealed that before going to press.

As with most Willets Point things, it seems to us that there is more going on here than meets the eye, or than has been reported by the WSJ. Other news outlets and the public are warned not to parrot everything they read, without questioning its accuracy.

We must add that, even presuming that 33 members of the Sunrise Cooperative would relocate to the Bronx, that is only a fraction – a third or less – of the total tenant businesses in Willets Point Phase One that need to be relocated. Relocation services provided to the Sunrise Cooperative, helpful though they may be, provide no relief whatsoever to the other tenant businesses, including members of the Willets Point Defense Committee led by Arturo Olaya – which recently held a news conference with New York State Senator Tony Avella to draw attention to the lack of relocation and ongoing evictions.

State Senator Tony Avella and members of the Willets Point Defense 
Committee hold a news conference concerning lack of relocation, 
February 28, 2014.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Willets Point Tenants Sue the City, NYCEDC and Developers

Sunrise Cooperative court Petition, cover page;
filed in New York State Supreme Court, New York County, February 4, 2014.
Thirty-three owners of businesses that are tenants at Willets Point, plus the Sunrise Cooperative umbrella group to which they belong, have sued the City of New York, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), the New York City Industrial Development Agency (IDA), Sterling Equities, Inc. (Sterling), The Related Companies, Inc. (Related) and Queens Development Group, LLC (QDG).

The tenants' court Petition describes a very disturbing reality that contrasts with the rosy visions that NYCEDC and City Council member Julissa Ferreras have sought to put over on the public. Like the rally held by a different tenant business group on November 20, 2013, this lawsuit should help to set the record straight concerning many unpleasant aspects of QDG's proposed Willets Point / Willets West development.

In their lawsuit, the Sunrise Cooperative tenants state that "there was no lawful relocation plan for current commercial tenants," that "the relocation assistance has been ineffective" and that the City's failure to implement a legitimate relocation plan, including viable relocation properties, is a violation of federal law specifically, the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970 (the URA).

The lawsuit notes that the New York Daily News reported on September 3, 2013 "that only ten out of the approximately 110 businesses in Willets Point, or only 9 percent, had been successfully relocated." Burnishing the point, the lawsuit continues: "Despite receiving testimony from the Urban Justice Center and others stating that the relocation plan was inadequate, the EDC and Developers have not provided meaningful assistance to the Petitioners."

Here, we remind our readers that NYCEDC hired Cornerstone Group – and paid it taxpayer funds totaling $700,000.00 – to provide five years' worth of relocation services that have turned out to be "ineffective" and not "meaningful", as told to the court. We also remind everyone that State Senator Tony Avella called for a federal investigation of Cornerstone in relation to Willets Point, during a press conference held with another tenant group, the Willets Point Defense Committee, on November 20, 2013. Senator Avella did so again on February 28, 2014, as discussed below.

Event organized by the Sunrise Cooperative, August 2, 2013.
Sunrise Cooperative is now suing the City and developers.
The Sunrise Cooperative lawsuit also attacks the IDA's approval of tax credits in the amount of $43 million for developers Sterling, Related and QDG, alleging that IDA overlooked "the requirement that a project is only eligible for financial assistance from the agency if the assistance is needed to induce the developer into completing the project," which was not the case for these developers and the Willets Point / Willets West project. We remind everyone that then-Comptroller John Liu voted against the $43 million tax credits as a member of the IDA board. Our thoughts on those tax credits – and our list of the other significant project costs that are rarely reported – are here.

The Sunrise Cooperative Petition also argues that NYCEDC and the developers did not disclose to the City Council, prior to the Council's October 9, 2013 vote to approve special permits necessary to the project, that the developers were seeking tax credits totaling $43 from the IDA – and that as a result, the Council's decision to approve the permits "was made before the full cost of the project was apparent", and therefore unlawful.

Finally, the tenants' court papers echo many of the same arguments made by other Petitioners in the separate lawsuit filed on February 10, 2014, concerning the fact that Sterling, Related and QDG intend to construct a 1.4 million square foot shopping mall on 30+ acres of property that is actually parkland, within Flushing Meadows-Corona Park – without obtaining state parkland alienation legislation, without any public review of the sacrifice of parkland for the mall, and without obtaining City approvals of the same.

Considering the significance of all those allegations and what is at stake for the Sunrise Cooperative Petitioners, we have to wonder: Why did they file their lawsuit on February 4, 2014, and then essentially keep it a secret for the past month? As of right now, no newspaper has yet reported on the tenants' lawsuit. It has only been mentioned in an online article published on February 14, 2014, written by Patrick Arden. We know first-hand that at least one big daily newspaper is aware of this lawsuit, but has deliberately backed away from publishing anything about it. Could it be, that the Sunrise Cooperative is merely attempting to leverage its lawsuit, to compel the City, NYCEDC, Sterling, Related and QDG to pony up substantial funds to facilitate relocation?

As if to emphasize the absolute mistreatment of Willets Point tenant businesses at the hands of NYCEDC, last Friday, members of the Willets Point Defense Committee – which is led by Arturo Olaya, and is not a party to either of the two pending lawsuits – held a news conference together with State Senator Tony Avella in his office. There, the press heard more horror stories of evictions, failure to relocate, and Cornerstone Group's continuing involvement at Willets Point. Below is the press release prepared by Senator Avella's office. Taken together with the Sunrise Cooperative's court Petition, it's clear that there is no fair treatment of Willets Point tenant businesses, and that reports of their relocation are greatly exaggerated. Mayor De Blasio, are you listening?


Senator Avella stands with Willets Point Tenants
to urge the City to reach an agreement

(Bayside, Queens, Friday, February 28, 2014) Today, Senator Tony Avella joined Willets Point tenant businesses who have not vacated from the premises, at a press conference urging the City of New York to come to an agreement and end their plight once and for all.   

The business owners shared individual stories of being shunned by City agencies involved in the disagreement.  

Many tenant businesses have not agreed to the deal proposed by the Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD) earlier last year due to minimal compensation offered, which does not even begin to cover the high relocation costs.

Since then, the businesses have joined together under the leadership of Arturo Olaya, a business tenant who has lead the fight in trying to come to a mutual agreement to safely relocate, in demanding that the City allocate better funding for the Willets Point tenant re-location. Unfortunately, not only has the City ignored their requests, some businesses continue to be shut down by the City Marshal without compensation or any resolution in sight.

 “Some of my members do not have money to bring home and feed their families,” said Olaya.  “The City promised to relocate every business but many people are getting shut out of the process.  They expect us to move our entire businesses for $12,000 and then $6,000.  That is not enough money. What business can move with such a small amount? Now many businesses have been forced to close their doors, without any money at all.”

“Even though the City promised some money for the relocation, it was insufficient and at times, not forthcoming for these business who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Senator Avella.  “To make matters worse, the City marshal started showing up and padlocking some of these business. This is unacceptable.  The City is planning to give this property over to the developers, who could make a hundred million dollars, but yet they cannot take care of the hard working businesses that have been there for many years.  This really a disgrace.”

Ms. Tana Quillupangui, speaking on behalf of her mother who owns a business “Emanuel Corp” recalled when the City forced them to move out everything on January 1st despite having no place to go.

“They lied to my mother many times.  They told her that there are a lot of places in Queens where she can go but the reality is, there is no space in Queens for her,” said Quillupangui. “The City said that there is a place available for $1,800 a month.  When we went to see it, we found out that the space was not even for sale.” 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

New Lawsuit Filed

Willets Point United Inc. (WPU) is pleased by City Club of New York filing a lawsuit in state supreme court asserting that it is illegal to construct a 1.4 million square foot "Willets West" mall on 30+ acres of Queens parkland, as intended by Queens Development Group (a joint venture of Sterling Equities and Related Companies), and to do so without obtaining state parkland alienation legislation and without obtaining approval specifically for the mall through the City's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP); as well as challenging the special permits that were granted to convert Willets Point into a parking lot to replace parking lost to the Willets West mall, when that mall may be illegal. Together with State Senator Tony Avella, advocacy groups, residents and business owners, WPU members are Petitioners in the case. We are also proud to have furnished WPU's institutional knowledge to City Club's legal team.

We want to remind everyone that whenever the dubious legality of constructing a 1.4 million square foot mall on public parkland was questioned, the Bloomberg administration responded by saying, in essence: "Don't worry – the legality of this has been vetted by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and the Mayor's Office. The mall construction can proceed because of a 1961 amendment to the City's Administrative Code, done to facilitate Shea Stadium."

We simply do not trust any self-serving claim of NYCEDC or the Bloomberg administration, that this mall construction is legal. After all, those are the very same people who:

•   Believed it was legal for NYCEDC to lobby for legislation authorizing the Willets Point development, and for NYCEDC to funnel $450,000 to Claire Shulman's local development corporation so that it, too, would lobby – until the NYS Attorney General (acting on WPU's complaint) determined that NYCEDC and Shulman's lobbying activities were absolutely illegal, then forced NYCEDC to undergo corporate re-structuring and Shulman's group to cease and desist all illegal lobbying. (See "EDC and Shulman's development group admit to illegal lobbying: AG")

•   Promised in writing that the Queens-based Willets Point Advisory Committee would participate in and help to guide developer selection – then violated that promise by instituting a closed-door process that completely shut out the Advisory Committee, and proceeding to select QDG and its plan to construct a mall on 30+ acres of Queens parkland and to expand the proposed Willets Point development from 62 acres to 108.9 acres.

•   Promised in writing that the Willets Point Request for Proposals would include a living wage provision as sought by labor unions – then violated that promise by issuing a Request for Proposals that omitted the promised living wage provision.

•   Told everyone that developing Willets Point in phases was virtually impossible – then proceeded to divide the project into phases and issue a Request for Proposals for "Phase One".

•   Promised that eminent domain would only be used as a last resort – then commenced eminent domain proceedings against owners of properties within Phase One, before exhausting negotiation possibilities (or in some cases, before conducting any negotiation, whatsoever).

•   Deliberately produced two irreconcilable traffic reports pertaining to the Willets Point project – one to be seen by City officials, and another to be seen by state and federal regulators.

•   Told everyone that the Willets Point project would result in Queens jobs – then awarded the $35+ million contract for construction of storm water and sanitary sewers not to a firm based anywhere in Queens, not anywhere in New York City, and not even anywhere in New York State – but rather, in Holmdel, New Jersey.

•   Told everyone that the Willets Point project would result in housing and affordable housing – then made any housing contingent upon new Van Wyck Expressway access ramps, and executed a project contract that states, "For the avoidance of doubt, in no event shall EDC or the City be required to construct the Ramps as part of the Development."

•   Told everyone that a key goal of the project is to remediate Willets Point property – then allowed QDG to submit a brownfield application to NYSDEC that deliberately omitted numerous City-owned properties within Phase One that could have been included in the application, including property that by QDG's own reasoning should be most in need of remediation.

Can we say "bad faith"?

From our perspective, it seems clear that the Bloomberg administration and NYCEDC would say whatever was necessary at the moment, in order to progress their Willets Point development – and the truth be damned. This has already been proven time and again, after the fact, as the above examples demonstrate.

WPU is confident that the administration's and NYCEDC's claim – that a 1961 amendment to the City's Administrative Code that was implemented for Shea Stadium can suffice as the sole basis to construct a "Willets West" shopping mall on Queens parkland, with no public review – will turn out to be just as bogus and unreliable as the administration's and NYCEDC's other past false claims pertaining to the Willets Point project. We look forward to the court's scrutiny and decision.

In our view, City Club of New York, Senator Avella, the lawyers and everyone else involved in promulgating this lawsuit are doing a service for all of Queens, by asserting rights over the 30+ acres of parkland that is at issue – parkland that former Mayor Bloomberg simply dictated would be sacrificed to developer QDG (Sterling Equities and Related Companies). For his part, the present Mayor de Blasio should let it be known whether or not he supports the sacrifice of 30+ acres of Queens parkland to developers – not to mention the give-away of 23 acres of Willets Point Phase One property to the same developers for the price of $1 (one dollar), also as orchestrated by former Mayor Bloomberg.

We suggest that as he recently did with the "stop-and-frisk" lawsuit, Mayor de Blasio should direct the City's Law Department to not defend against the present lawsuit challenging the Willets West mall. Furthermore, Mayor de Blasio should direct NYCEDC to cease and desist any further sale of Phase One property to QDG, until we know the final outcome of the pending lawsuit – which may be that QDG cannot proceed with its intended development. For all we know right now, depending on the result of the pending lawsuit, it may eventually be in the City's best interest to go back to the drawing board with Willets Point and issue a new Request for Proposals, soliciting all potential developers, not just QDG. Under the circumstances, selling any Phase One property to QDG right now is nonsensical. Mayor de Blasio should also call a halt to the unnecessary, ongoing evictions of tenant businesses from Willets Point Phase One. 

Indeed, considering the free property, parkland, tax credits and grants that former Mayor Bloomberg arranged to be lavished upon QDG, while long-time Willets Point tenant business are evicted with little or no compensation or relocation, and property owners threatened with eminent domain, Mayor de Blasio should recognize that what was set in motion by his predecessor at Willets Point is a poster-child for the "Tale of Two Cities" that candidate de Blasio vowed to stop. And Mayor de Blasio should act accordingly now at Willets Point, and in responding to the present lawsuit.

In the event that our new Mayor decides to proceed with this misguided project, he should beware that there is a six year statute of limitations for anyone to sue to prevent construction of the new Van Wyck Expressway access ramps, without which housing and affordable housing cannot be built at Willets Point. It is not just the present lawsuit that may be this project's undoing.