A New York State Supreme Court justice has given the green light to a controversial 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall and entertainment center slated to rise on public parkland next to Citi Field in Queens. The “Willets Point West” development sits within Flushing Meadows–Corona Park and is currently being used as a parking lot for Mets fans. Opponents of the project tried to block it in court on the grounds that giving away public land for private development would require state approval. In mid-August, justice Manuel Mendez rejected that argument, writing in his ruling that developing a shopping mall served the “public purpose of improving trade or commerce.”
Following the decision, the project’s developer—the Queens Development Group (a joint venture between Sterling Equities and the Related Companies)—and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) vowed to push forward with their plans. A spokesperson for the EDC told AN, “We are pleased with the decision affirming the plan to redevelop the Willets Point area.” He added that the project is expected to break ground once the site is fully acquired and remediation work is completed. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in the case have vowed to appeal.
The creation of “Willets Points West” only represents a piece of the $3 billion, 62-acre redevelopment surrounding Citi Field. The fight to develop this land dates back through many mayoral administrations, but was ultimately advanced in the final months of the Bloomberg years. In 2013, the New York City Council gave the plan its blessing after the development team pledged to write a multi-million dollar check to the Flushing Meadows–Corona Park Alliance, create a rooftop farm for the mall, and provide 300 units of affordable housing in the surrounding district.
As “Willets Point West” moves forward, there are plans in the pipeline to turn the gritty, industrial acres behind the Mets’ right field into a mixed-use development. To kick-start the transformation, the city sold 23 acres of Willets Point to the Queens Development Group for one dollar.
For the actual development to start, though, the low-income, largely immigrant population who works at the auto body shops in what is known as the “Iron Triangle,” must be encouraged to move elsewhere. The city has started writing checks to motivate the roughly 130 small businesses to relocate. As of this writing, there are about 30 businesses left on the site.
The future of the displaced small businesses is unknown, which is why this piece of the redevelopment has been the most controversial. In March, Tom Angotti, a professor at Hunter College, told the Wall Street Journal, “When they move, they don’t just take their clientele with them—they have to start all over again. It’s extremely risky for them.”
According to the EDC, the first phase of the project includes 2,500 residential units (875 of which are affordable), as well as community facilities, a school, a hotel, retail, parking, and more than six acres of open space.