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Judges Question Whether Willets Point Mall Plan Serves Public Good

By Katie Honan | April 25, 2017 10:10pm
 The fight against the
The fight against the "Willets West" project in the parking lot of Citi Field -- which lawyers for the project say is necessary to pay for the full remediation of Willets Point -- was heard in the state's court of appeals on April 25, 2017.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

CORONA — Lawyers for developers of a proposed mall on a Citi Field parking lot argued in the state's court of appeals that the project falls within the guidelines of the decades-old ruling that allowed Shea Stadium to be built — and that its construction is necessary to clean up Willets Point for further development.

Yet the judges hearing the case questioned whether a mega-mall on public land would serve the public the way it was intended — questioning how a law allowing the space to be used for an "event" applies to the construction of "Willets West" — a mall with public space and a rooftop garden proposed for the parking lot of Citi Field.

"It says an event, it doesn't say a mall. How is an event a store?," Judge Jenny Rivera asked at the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains, referring to the language of the law that allows events to be held in the space. 

Later, as the city's lawyer Richard Dearing made his arguments in favor of the mall, Rivera asked what else could possibly be moved or built in the lot.

"Can you move the mayor's house to this parcel? Can you move the Department of Motor Vehicles to this parcel?," she said, drawing laughs from the crowd inside court.

Judge Eugene M. Fahey said, "The primary purpose is a private purpose — it is to lease space so people can spend money in the context of going to a baseball game."

The hearing — which featured six judges, as well as an empty chair, along with a robe and a pink rose, in memory of the late appeals Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam — was the latest in the case of Avella vs the City of New York, the lawsuit filed in 2014 that seeks to stop the mall.

They debated the project with lawyers for developers Queens Development Group, city and state, along with a lawyer for the petitioners.

The suit was filed in February 2014 in Manhattan Supreme Court by state Sen. Tony Avella, along with good government group The City Club of New York, New York City Park Advocates, community groups, local businesses and residents.

Their argument is tied to the 1961 law that passed in order to build Shea Stadium, which was demolished in 2009 to make way for Citi Field.

That law allowed the stadium to be built on what was then a portion of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, setting guidelines for what else could be built there.  

Both sides have vastly different ideas for what constitutes "recreation" on what is now a parking lot for the stadium.

Caitlin Halligan, representing the Queens Development Group, said at the beginning of her argument that the "stakes of this case are high."

In order to pay for the remediation needed to clean up Willets Point — which not even power builder Robert Moses could do — the developers would need to build the proposed mall, she said. Demolition has already begun on parts of the "Iron Triangle."

"It's the catalyst and economic engine for remediation at Willets Point," she said.

The state's lawyer, Anisha Dasgupta, said they resisted "the characteristics that this project is exclusively a mall, because it will provide public space."

The judges will make their decision on the appeal at a later date. 

State Sen. Tony Avella said after the hearing that he was nearly brought to tears listening to the city and state side with profit over the public. 

"The fact that this city — the mayor who said he wasn't going to back this [mall plan], reversed his decision. and that the state came and defended this [mall] — I'm on the brink of tears.

"Where's our government defending the people and the public trust doctrine?" he asked.

A spokesman for the Queens Development Group said they are committed to cleaning up Willets Point.

“We are committed to completing our unprecedented $3 billion investment in Queens to reverse 100 years of pollution, create thousands of good-paying jobs and turn vacant lots into a vibrant community," a group spokesman said. 

"We are hopeful that the court will approve this bold vision, which has already won support from the City Council, the local community board and many other stakeholders.”

City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who pushed for the project in the city council in 2013, said she's fought for the affordable housing, open space, school and environmental remediation needed at Willets Point.

"My community urgently needs these resources and we cannot continue to wait," she said in a statement.

"I look forward to finally moving ahead with a plan that puts this area of Queens to its highest and best use."