Willets Point Special Permits Come Under Attack at City Council Hearing


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

Council Members voiced concern over the City’s applications to facilitate Phase 1 of the Willets’ Point Development Project. The City Council’s Land Use Zoning and Franchises subcommittee held a public hearing on September 3, 2013 on Phase 1A of the $3 billion Willets Point Development Project. The applicants, New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and Queens Development Group, a joint venture of Related Companies and Sterling Equities, testified. The application is a modification of the original 2008 proposal, and seeks a zoning resolution amendment and special permits to allow the City Planning Commission (CPC) to permit the development of up to 2,833 parking spaces and recreational area in a temporary lot within the Willets Point District.

The Willets Point Development Project was approved by the City Council in 2008. The goal of the project is to re-develop the 62-acre district by construction of 5,500 housing units, 35% of which is affordable; community facilities (school, eight-acres of new open space); two million sq. ft. of retail, office space, and hotels; and a convention center. (See CityLand’s past coverage here). On July 10, 2013, the CPC held a public hearing on Phase 1 of the project, which covers 23 of the 62 acres that make up the district. During Phase 1, the applicants plan to build a 1.4 million square foot retail and entertainment complex west of Citi Field. (See CityLand’s past coverage here). CPC approved the application on August 21, 2013.

The applicants emphasized that the special permits were not an alteration to the overall plan for Willets Point. Kyle Kimball, President of the EDC, stated that the modification will “make the original approved plan achievable.” The incremental approach will create a retail and entertainment space in order to introduce a change in perception of the Willets Point District.  The intent is to establish “a sense of place, and make this a place where people want to live because they will live in a neighborhood.” According to Kimball, the preliminary incremental approach is necessary to transform the Willets Point district ultimately into a mixed income neighborhood and retail destination.

Rob Goldrich, Senior Policy Advisor in the Mayor’s office, stated that the first phase is projected to “result in $3 billion dollars of private investment, create 7,100 permanent jobs, and 12,000 direct construction jobs with MWBE and local hiring goals of 25 percent.” The retail and entertainment complex is also projected to generate $310 million in new tax revenue for the City and produce $150 million in new annual tax revenue once it is operational.

The applicants stated that by the end of 2013 work will be completed on critical off site infrastructure improvements, including construction of a sanitary sewer main and reconstruction of storm sewer and outfall. With the assistance of the Cornerstone Group, the applicants have relocated ten businesses from the Willets Point District. Cornerstone’s role is to identify spaces and work as a liaison to prospective landlords.

Council Member Julissa Ferreras took issue with the small number of relocations out of the estimated 165 businesses that need to be relocated. Ferreras stated that in 2009, she was told that all the local businesses in the District could be moved as a group. Ferreras stated that the Willets Point District businesses, which consist predominantly of immigrant-owned automobile body shops, including a group of 52 shops called the Sunrise Cooperative, are distinctively supportive and reliant of each other. Many of those testifying in opposition to the application stated that the applicants’ current relocation plan and initiatives were insufficient, a failure and unjust.

Council Members Ferreras and Leroy Comrie also took issue with the City’s decision to wait to fund construction of new Van Wyck Expressway ramps until after the development of the retail and entertainment complex.  Because the housing is not slated to begin until after the ramps are completed, delays in highway construction will delay the housing also.

Kimball stated that “bringing in new housing before the area has had a chance to establish itself as a destination where people want to work, shop, and live is not a sound development plan.” Opponents of the application contended that the applicants did not in fact intend to build the housing, which would include 875 affordable housing units, and only intended to build the retail and entertainment complex. Under the current contract, the partnership would be required to pay a $35 million penalty for not building housing. However, if the ramps are not built, the developer would not be penalized.

The applicants need the City Council’s final approval to move Citi Field parking to Willets Point in order to construct the 1.4 million-square-foot shopping center. The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises postponed the conclusion of this public hearing until further notice due to Council Member Ferreras giving birth to her first child.

City Council: Willets Point Development Project (N 130220 ZRQ – text amendment); (C 130222 ZSQ – special permit); (C 130223 ZSQ – special permit); (C 130224 ZSQ – special permit); (C 130225 ZSQ – special permit) (September 3, 2013).


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