BY JAMES FARRELL
The city has been “delinquent” in its discussions with Community Board 7 on the future of the troubled Willets Point development, according to the board’s First Vice Chairman Chuck Apelian. And at Monday night’s quarterly meeting with the project’s stakeholders, Apelian put the city and developers on notice.
“I want to be very clear,” Apelian said. “We expect to be involved.”
The future of Willets Point has been uncertain since a June ruling by the Court of Appeals halted a major part of the proposed development, a mega mall known as Willets West, because it was planned for a parcel of land connected to nearby Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Building the mall on public parkland would require approval from the state legislature, the court said.
And while Willets West was only part of a larger development plan that included hundreds of affordable housing units and environmental remediation, the developers maintained that the mall was the “economic engine” that would make the project possible. Now, the developers and city are deciding whether to pursue a long campaign for state approval or make changes to their plan. But changes to the project could concern Community Board 7, which approved the most recent proposal in 2013.
“If the original concept has been now modified, that’s not what this board voted on,” CB 7 Chairman Eugene Kelty said on Monday.
However, the board technically voted in 2013 on four special permits that required approval as part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), all regarding parking regulations, according to Ethan Goodman, a lawyer representing the Queens Development Group, which is a joint venture between the Mets’ Sterling Equities and Related Companies that is developing Willets Point.
“Now, of course, the board acted in consideration of a larger project,” Goodman said. However, he added that if a new proposal left those four special permits unchanged, QDG would not need to seek approval again.
Nate Bliss, of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said that, regardless, the city plans on being a partner with the community on the process. Apelian expressed hope that this was true. If the parkland was not alienated by the state legislature and Willets West was abandoned, he expects the project could change “dramatically.”
“You may not need us, but I think the best thing to do is, I think you should need us,” Apelian said. “Somewhere along the line, you think you don’t and then you do—it’s not going to be an easy day for this board. My suggestion is, loud and clear, and what [Kelty] is saying is, we want to be involved with the EDC, with the mayor’s office, and that includes the deputy mayor of economic development and the development team of what’s going on with this project.”
The board also asked for a time limit on when the developers and the city would decide its next steps—it’s still unclear whether the development team will pursue alienation of the parkland in order to continue with Willets West or modify the plan. The board hopes to establish that time limit by the next quarterly meeting, which is scheduled for Jan. 10.
Bliss wouldn’t say definitively what the next steps were, but he suggested that the board would not be left waiting for years to hear how the project will proceed.
“We’re not interested in waiting around for an alienation action,” Bliss said.
After the last quarterly meeting in June, Community Board 7 was frustrated that no high-level representatives from the EDC attended and accused the EDC of not taking its discussions with the board seriously. In a fiery letter, the board accused the EDC of leaving several questions about the project unanswered. Bliss clarified other parts of the project at Monday’s meeting, addressing some of those questions.
The 23 acres of Willets Point designated for Phase I of the project have all been purchased, with 21 acres belonging to the city and two belonging to QDG. On Monday, the board asked that the EDC return with an explanation of why the ownership of the acres were divided in that way. Bliss added that tenant relocation on that land is “substantially complete,” with only one or two tenants remaining.
Additionally, the QDG is still the exclusive developer of the site, but either the city or developer can terminate the agreement.
Bliss said that the city’s objectives of creating affordable housing and environmental remediation “remain unchanged.”
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.