2008-04-23 / Features

Willets Point Project Faces City Council Stonewall

BY JOHN TOSCANO

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, who had been a strong advocate of the $3 billion plan, said last Friday after seeing emerging alternate plans: "I am very disappointed with any alternate plan that does not include a convention center." Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, who had been a strong advocate of the $3 billion plan, said last Friday after seeing emerging alternate plans: "I am very disappointed with any alternate plan that does not include a convention center." Mayor Michael Bloomberg presented a battered, barely recognizable Willets Point development plan to the City Planning Commission for approval on Monday- a plan to which the City Council declared it was strongly opposed because it lacked the element that public officials and community groups have demanded.

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, who had been a strong advocate of the $3 billion plan, said last Friday after seeing emerging alternate plans: "I am very disappointed with any alternate plan that does not include a convention center."

The city council, which would have the final say about any plan approvals, was led in its opposition by Councilmember Hiram Monserrate, whose Corona district includes the 61-acre development site.

Before the mayor sent the Willets Point plan to the City Planning Commission, Monserrate sent a letter signed by 29 councilmembers, 11 from Queens, to Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber, saying the lawmakers found the plan "deeply flawed" and "unacceptable without significant modification". Monserrate said the councilmembers disagreed with the mayor's decision to send it to the Planning Commission. Among their many objections, they opposed seizing the 253 businesses on the site by eminent domain, taking away 1,700 workers' jobs.

"As currently structured, this plan cannot go forward," the letter said.

The Queens councilmembers who signed the Monserrate letter were: John Liu (Flushing), Helen Sears (Jackson Heights), John Sanders (Rockaway), Tony Avella (Bayside), Leroy Comrie (Jamaica), Eric Gioia (Long Island City), David Weprin (Hollis), Joseph Addabbo Jr. (Ozone Park), James Gennaro (Fresh Meadows) and Thomas White (Springfield Gardens) all Democrats.

In considering any zoning matter, the full council generally follows the lead of the councilmember in whose district the project is located.

Monserrate had been very outspoken about the plan. Joined by Liu and several community groups, he had opposed the affordable housing component of the proposal as inadequate. He had also grappled with the city Economic Development Corporation about the prospective loss of jobs and the Bloomberg administration's failure to replace those jobs with new jobs for local residents.

The plan presented for initial approvals from the Planning Commission on Monday called for building 5,500 housing units, a hotel, convention center and large amounts of office and retail space.

The site, adjacent to the New York Mets Citi Field, has been occupied for about 50 years with auto junkyards and related businesses. The property owners have resisted being moved, were making little progress getting relocated and several weeks ago announced a suit against the city for failing to provide basic services.

There had been no indication of any change of plans until last Friday, when Marshall got an advance copy of the development plan's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and was surprised that there were several alternate plans, according to one of her aides.

According to the aide, there were "a couple of alternate plans on the table". Marshall's reaction was: "It's not the original project- they've cut the project in half."

Under the alternate plans, the aide said, "Basically what would be developed was the western portion of the original site" that lies opposite the new Citi Field. It wipes out the convention center." This was very disturbing to Marshall, who had always regarded a convention center as one of the most attractive aspects of the plan because it would improve the borough's economy if upscale corporate types would come and stay in the proposed new hotel during conventions.

The aide said another disturbing possibility was that the proposed housing, which ranged from luxury condominiums to affordable housing to low-income units, would be reduced from 4,400 units to 3,000.

This was disconcerting, the aide said, because Monserrate, Liu and other advocates for more affordable and low-income units, had already confronted the Bloomberg administration on the issue and had been stonewalled on it, much to the chagrin of local community leaders.

Marshall tried to reach someone at City Hall to find out what was behind the alternate plans, "but got nowhere", the aide said.

The aide, who asked to remain anonymous, also said that the removal of the convention center from the development plans would also "raise a howl" from the Queens Chamber of Commerce, which not only was very supportive of the idea but also spent about $70,000 for a study which showed there was a need for it.

The application that the mayor sent to the City Planning Commission covers a wide assortment of approvals necessary for the project and includes many hearings over a seven-month period before it comes to the city council for a final yes or no vote.

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