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.