Judge Clears the Way for Controversial Willets Point Mega-Mall

By Katie Honan on August 21, 2014 1:21pm | Updated on August 22, 2014 4:37pm

 The City Council approved the "Willets West" plan in October. A judge has tossed out a lawsuit that attempted to invoke the "public trust doctrine" to block construction of the mega-mall.
The City Council approved the "Willets West" plan in October. A judge has tossed out a lawsuit that attempted to invoke the "public trust doctrine" to block construction of the mega-mall.
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Facebook/Citi Field

CORONA — A judge shot down a lawsuit that tried to block the controversial construction of a mega-mall on a parking lot next to Citi Field in Willets Point.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Manuel Mendez ruled that the project, part of a massive overhaul of the Iron Triangle, doesn't violate the "public trust doctrine," which prohibits non-park projects from being built on top of parkland without approval of the state Legislature.

The suit pointed to a 1961 law that allowed only projects related to the construction of Shea Stadium on the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park land, and could not carry over to new construction.

The action, brought by state Sen. Tony Avella among others, claimed that the "Willets West" project, part of a larger plan to revitalize the area around Citi Field, violates the intent of that law.

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But Mendez wrote in his Aug. 15 ruling that the 1961 law allowed the land to be used for any purpose that fosters "recreation, entertainment, amusement...betterment and improvement of trade or commerce," according to court papers.

"The public trust doctrine does not apply," he wrote, and agreed with the Queens Development Group, a joint venture between Sterling Equities and the Related Companies, which is spearheading the project.

The group argued that the mall will not take away parkland since it's currently being used as a parking lot.

It also argued that the project will improve the community and promote commerce in the area and pointed out that the developer will lose the land and be slapped with a $35 million fine if they fail to live up to obligations, according to court documents.

A lawyer for the group against the plan, John Low-Beer, said they will appeal the decision.

"Plaintiffs believe that the decision misunderstands the common law doctrine that prohibits any non-park use of parkland without the specific and explicit approval of the State Legislature," he wrote in a statement.

"That law did not allow the construction of anything except a stadium and related facilities on the site."

A spokeswoman for the Queens Development Group called Mendez's decision a "win for Willets Point and all of Queens."

"It is a significant step forward in the effort to create a new Willets and reverse 100 years of pollution," the group said. 

A spokeswoman for the Economic Development Corporation, which is leading the project, said they "are pleased with the decision affirming the plan to redevelop the Willets Point area, and look forward to next steps in site remediation and activation.”

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