Willets West opposition gets its day in court
by Chase Collum
Aug 06, 2014 | 512 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
State Senator Tony Avella with attorney John Low-Beer after the hearing
State Senator Tony Avella with attorney John Low-Beer after the hearing
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Another battle in the years-long debate over the future of Willets Point played out in a Manhattan Supreme Court last week, as Judge Manuel Mendez heard the case against the city and developers as presented by John Low-Beer.

Petitioners, including State Senator Tony Avella, City Club, the Queens Civic Congress and the New York City Parks Advocates, as well as local residents and business owners filed the suit to stop the construction of a mall on top of what is currently the parking lot for Citi Field.

Technically, the parking lot is part of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Developers Sterling Equities and Related Companies, which together form the Queens Development Group, and the city claim that the provisionary law – Administrative Code 18-118 – that allowed for the development of Shea Stadium in 1961 gives them the authority they need to build on the parkland.

The petitioners believe otherwise, arguing the law was written only to allow the building of facilities that support the mission of the stadium.

In his address to Mendez, Low-Beer said his clients feel that the Queens Development Group and the city “aren't just in violation of the law, they are brazenly and blatantly in violation of the law” in their decision to move forward with the development of a “megamall” on public parkland without approval by the state legislature.

“This is an important case your honor, not just for petitioners but for the principles at stake for the city at large,” Low-Beer said. “The city is running roughshod over the state law and its own land use procedures.”

Jonathan Frank, the attorney representing Sterling Equities, argued that the retail and entertainment center would hugely increase the tax base of the neighborhood, which would help fund the redevelop of Willets Point moving forward.

“At the bottom of this is that this retail and entertainment center would allow this development,” Frank said.

He also pointedly said that as far as the petitioners in the suit, the time for their input is long gone.

“This is not for them to decide,” Frank said. “That day has passed.”

Judith Kaye, a former head of the New York State Court of Appeals who is representing Related Companies, said that she believes the mall fits into code 18-118’s intent because it will serve the public with entertainment and recreation.

“Those of us who know first-class shopping center and mega malls your honor, we know they’re good, honest gathering places with social activities, for events, for dining,” she said. “We believe that these are genuine purposes that fit very well within the unique, broadly worded statute that we have here.”

Earlier in her appeal to Justice Mendez, Kaye reminded Mendez of her class and status as a former judge, when she said, “We know from having read the law, that when the legislature wants to limit something, it explicitly says so.”

“If the legislature had wanted to limit the scope of 18-118 they knew very, very well how to do it,” Kay said.

The attorney representing the City of New York reminded Mendez that if the petitioners win their case, the developers will suffer a $35 million penalty for not fulfilling their development contract, and the city will also lose out on millions that have already been invested in the Queens Development Group redevelopment plan.

“Community groups from the League of Conservation Voters to the the Queens Chamber of Commerce to the Carpenters and other trades along with an overwhelming majority of the City Council support this project because it will clean up a site that has been contaminated for decades and turn it into a new neighborhood,” read a statement from Queens Development Group following the hearing.

The respondents were given two weeks to come up with responses to Low-Beer’s rebuttal of their case despite Low-Beer’s plea for a speedy trial in hopes of shutting down the development of the Willets West mall before it begins.

“This case is a matter of some urgency. The clock is ticking there almost certainly will be appeals,” Low-Beer said. He explained that if the developers begin construction while appeals are in the process of being litigated, “It is possible that the courts could find the petitioners case is moot.”

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