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Judges Block 'Willets West' Development as Potential Abuse of Parkland

By Katie Honan | June 6, 2017 1:04pm | Updated on June 6, 2017 3:12pm
 The appeals court judges ruled five to one in favor of the group seeking to block the plan to build a mall on a Citi Field parking lot.
The appeals court judges ruled five to one in favor of the group seeking to block the plan to build a mall on a Citi Field parking lot.
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​CORONA — Judges have ruled to block the development of a mall on a Citi Field parking lot, saying that allowing the project to move forward would allow an abuse of construction on public land.

The Appeals Court panel voted five to one for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit, which argued that the empty space was parkland and was protected under state law. The suit was brought by State Sen. Tony Avella, The City Club of New York, New York City Park Advocates, community groups, local businesses and residents.

The appeal sought to overturn a lower court decision that would allow the "Willets West" mall construction by Queens Development Group, who were supported by both the city and state at their April hearing.

They argued the 1961 law that allowed for Shea Stadium to be built on parkland extended to other construction in the public interest.

But the judges, except Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, agreed that the argument for the plan was "unpersuasive."

They also decided that any plan going forward would require approval from the state legislature. 

"Just as a general statute authorizing municipalities to construct railroads on lands held in the public trust did not authorize New York City to construct a street railroad, the 1961 legislation does not authorize the construction of a retail complex and movie theater," they said in their ruling, released Tuesday. 

"Reading 'improvement of trade or commerce'  as the city suggests — namely, as authorization for the construction of anything that might improve trade or commerce — would lead to an absurd result."

John Low-Beer, the City Club attorney who argued the case, called the decision "a victory for parks and for the public trust doctrine." 

"The proposed project would have been injurious to many people, including the individual petitioners," he said. "I hope that this decision will lead to a better future for Willets Point and for Flushing Meadows-Corona Park."

The judges challenged lawyers in favor of the plan at the appeals hearing in April, questioning whether a large mall fell under the guidelines laid out in the 1961 ruling.

"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. 

The only judge in favor of the plan was DiFiore, who said the "proposed development has the potential to turn vacant lots into a vibrant community, transform parking lots into places of public use and enjoyment, and replace asphalt with hope and aspirations for the blighted community of Willets Point."

Developers have argued that the only way they can properly clean up neighboring Willets Point would be with the construction of the mall, adjacent to Citi Field. 

A spokesman for the Queens Development Group said they were disappointed by the court's decision, which "further delays" the proposed cleanup of the "Iron Triangle."

"At a time when Queens needs private investment more than ever, the court’s decision disregards the City Council, the local community board and other stakeholders who have already approved the Willets West plan," they said in a statement. "We are in the process of evaluating our next steps.”

City Hall spokeswoman Melissa Grace said the ruling doesn't change the city's plan to develop a "dynamic mixed-use project" in Willets Point.

“Our priorities remain the same: jumpstarting the affordable housing, schools, libraries, retail and open space this community was promised," she said in a statement.