Mayor announces deal to redevelop portion of Willets Point
by Shane Miller
Jun 20, 2012 | 779 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited the Queens Chamber of Commerce (QCC) last Thursday morning to announce a deal to begin development at Willets Point.

Queens Development Group, a joint venture between Related Companies and Sterling Equities, the latter of which is headed by New York Mets ownership, will remediate and develop 23 of the 61 acres at Willets Point, primarily focusing on 126th Street across from Citi Field.

The mayor said that the proposal by Queens Development Group was the only one received from a Request for Proposals issued three years ago that would result in the completion of the first phase of Willets Point.

Remediation of the site should begin next year, and a full build-out will take 10 to 15 years. It will include a 200-room hotel and 30,000 square feet of retail space.

“Unlike any other proposal, it includes everything we were looking for in the full first phase, exactly as the community and City Council approved back in 2008,” the mayor told members of the chamber.

Phase one will also include nearly 20 acres of interim recreational space, which will double as parking for Citi Field. That's because the parking lot on the west side of Citi field will be turned into a one-million-square-foot entertainment complex with parking for 2,500 cars.

Once that is complete, parking will be moved back to the Citi Field site, paving the way for the rest of the Willets Point redevelopment.

The mayor admitted that the proposal wasn't exactly what the city envisioned when it announced that it was going to focus on redeveloping Willets Point, a gritty industrial area that lacked even basic infrastructure like sewers and paved roads.

“Does it include everything on everyone’s wish list and on the timeline we were hoping for?” asked the mayor. “No, but it does allow us to completely transform Willets Point.”

Some of the key components phase one won't include are housing – only 205 units will be included in the first phase, with the majority of housing coming in potential later development – or a convention center.

As for the housing, Economic Development Corporation President Seth Pinsky said it was important to get development started at Willets Point to realize future housing units.

“It’s to create a positive association in people’s minds with Willets Point,” he said, “create a destination and then to move on to the housing at that point.”

Once the first phase of development is complete, Pinsky said new ramps providing access to the Van Wyck Expressway will be built, and the rest of the development at Willets Point could proceed. If Related and Sterling Equities fail to reach that point, the partners will be forced to pay a $35 million penalty.

“At the point, the city will not only have a $35 million payment, but the site will have been remediated, there will be infrastructure, and the site will have been activated with all of the other development,” said Pinsky. “But we anticipate that this project is going to happen exactly as planned.

As for the convention center, which the chamber has been advocating for, QCC executive director Jack Friedman said the chamber was hopeful that a convention center, along with a casino, would be included in future development.

“This would be great, great start, but we want to make sure that Willets Point is considered for a convention center if and when an RFP goes out next year,” he said, referring to the second phase of development. “Every one of these things the mayor announced today helps our goals. Nobody wants to move into a vacant 61-acre oil spot.”

Friedman said that casino gaming at Willets Point would be important in attracting a developer.

“In this case, the government subsidy is the ability to get casino gaming,” he said. “We need to watch that closely and make sure that Queens has a good and relevant spot for bidders to bid on, and we think that Willets Point is that place.”

But not everyone was happy about the mayor's announcement, including Willets Point United, a group representing several of the larger business owners in the area. The group sent out a statement early this week criticizing the proposal, notably the involvement of the New York Mets ownership, which the group says has been trying to acquire land at Willets Point for its own uses for nearly two decades.

The group also pointed out that the initial proposal practically ignores the affordable housing component, which was a big selling point when the redevelopment of Willets Point was originally announced.

“It purports to delay the affordable housing component of the development until 2025, with a penalty imposed if the housing is not built,” read the statement. “However, other developers have completely evaded similar penalties in the past. Thus, the proposed arrangement is tantamount to removing the entire housing component from the project.”

Meanwhile, local elected officials praised the mall on the west side of Citi Field as being an important piece in connecting the neighborhoods of Flushing and Corona, and insuring that Corona benefits from the new development.

“That focus to the west will reinvigorate a community that has been struggling,” said Congressman Joseph Crowley.

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