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