When the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest court in our state, announced its decision last week ruling against developers’ proposed heist of public land to build the Willets West megamall, preservationists across the borough applauded loudly. This is a resounding victory for residents across all of New York State and for the public trust doctrine, which requires that the legislature, acting on behalf of the people, approve any giveaway of parkland. It sends a clear message to public officials across our state that you cannot be complicit in these schemes to deprive the public of what is rightfully theirs.
Surrogates of the developers have argued that this ruling destroys the plans for affordable housing in the area and slows down the rehabilitation of Willets Point, where auto repair shops once stood and many still remain. The truth is that there never was any connection between the promised housing in Willets Point and the construction of a megamall on the parkland where the Citi Field parking lot now sits, known as Willets West. The agreement between the city and the developers did not require one cent of the mall’s profits to go toward housing in Willets Point. Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen was right when, in August 2015, she told the press, “Nearly half a billion dollars is an enormous public investment to make when the only guarantee is a shopping mall.” I hope that the mayor, who then flip-flopped to support the project, will change his mind again.
The Willets West lawsuit was not about stopping development, but rather protecting parkland—parkland that is finite; parkland that the residents of Queens need. This location is currently used as a parking lot for the stadium as well as for recreational uses.
Nothing changes the fact that it is New York City parkland. If it is no longer needed for parking, let the city plant trees and grass there.
I never wanted to have to sue my government—but in order to help protect my borough, it was something that needed to be done. As I sat in that courtroom and watched lawyers hired to protect the interest of the people argue against that very interest, it was difficult to keep my composure. However, it helped me gain a deeper appreciation for our founding fathers and their prudent decision to include three branches of government in order to protect the people from an overreaching government.
When the decision was announced, the papers might have said it was a win for Avella—but it was truly a victory for Queens, New York City and New York State. This underdog triumph would not have been possible without all of my fellow plaintiffs, our attorneys and the residents across the city who stood up to city hall and billionaire developers in an effort to save their hometown.
Thank you to everyone who played a role in this resounding victory. You deserve a round of applause. Thank you especially to the City Club of New York, NYC Park Advocates and our attorney, John Low-Beer.
Tony Avella is a state senator representing northeast Queens’ District 11.