Court of Appeals Blocks Willets Point Development

Long View Rendering of 126th Street and Citi Field. Image Credit: NYC EDC.

Legislative approval would be needed in order to build retail stores, restaurants and a movie theater on Willets West parkland. The Special Willets Point District was approved by the City Council in 2008. The rezoning was controversial; area businesses and residents were concerned over the relocation of businesses, the possibility of eminent domain, and traffic congestion. As a result, a lawsuit was filed against the City by business owners and residents but was dismissed by the New York County Supreme Court in 2010. EDC published a request for proposals in May 2011, asking developers to propose plans for Phase 1 of the development. In June 2012, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the City had come to an agreement with the Queens Development Group for Phase 1 of the development plans.

On October 9, 2013, the City Council approved Queens Development Group’s planned 10-story, 200-room hotel and 30,000-square foot mall complex on the Willets Point West site, formerly the location of Shea Stadium. The site was once the north end of Flushing Meadows Park until the state legislature authorized the stadium’s construction in 1961. The development would anchor further construction of infrastructure improvements, mixed-income housing, and a school. Since the stadium’s demolition in 2009, the site has served as a parking lot for Citi Field, but remains classified as parkland.

On February 10, 2014, State Senator Tony Avella, the City Club of New York, and local advocacy groups petitioned for declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing the Council failed to abide by ULURP and the development violated the public trust doctrine. The lower court dismissed the petition. For CityLand‘s previous coverage of the Supreme Court decision, click here.

On appeal, the Appellate Division, First Department voted unanimously enjoin progress of the development. The First Department found the enumerated purposes listed in the 1961 legislation concerning Shea Stadium, including the improvement of trade and commerce, were intended to be considered in conjunction with operating a stadium and not considered in the abstract. For CityLand‘s previous coverage of the appellate decision, click here.

On June 6, 2017, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the 1961 legislation does not authorize construction of a retail complex and movie theater. “The text of the statute and its legislative history flatly refute the proposition that the legislature granted the City the authority to construct a development such as Willets West in Flushing Meadows Park.” The Court stated that although remediation plans for Willets Point is laudable, in order for the legislature to alienate the parkland for this purpose it must do so through direct and specific legislation that expressly confers the desired alienation.

Avella v. City of New York, NY Slip 04383 (Court of Appeals June 6, 2017).

By: Brian Kaszuba (Brian is the CityLand Editor and New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2004)

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