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Developers Get 2nd Chance at Plate in N.Y.

MANHATTAN (CN) - Plans to build a mega-mall adjacent to the Mets' CitiField in Queens, N.Y., got a new lease on life after New York's Court of Appeals agreed to hear the issue some time next year.

The court's decision to hear the case, granted Nov. 23, comes in the wake of a decision by state's Appellate Division that the developers' plans to build the shopping mall and a parking lot on the site of the New York Mets' former home, Shea Stadium, violated the original legislative intent for the property.

In the July 2 decision, Judge Angela Mazzarelli wrote that the land - which is now mostly paved-over concrete-is technically parkland and cannot be developed without special zoning permits. Those permits must be approved by the state legislature, and have not been sought by developers.

CitiField, where the New York Mets now play, was built in 2009 after the Shea Stadium was torn down. In 2008, city officials joined with Mets owner Sterling Equities and real estate firm Related Companies to formulate plans to redevelop the run-down Willets Point area, which is known for car garages and potholes more than parks and shopping centers.

The developers had initially intended to develop the 1.4 million-square-foot Willets West in one fell swoop, but due to funding concerns and the projected size of the project, by 2013 it had adopted a more piecemeal approach.

The plan was immediately divisive, as projected cleanup costs rose and related plans for affordable housing took a back seat to the shopping mall.

In 2014, State Sen. Tony Avella (who represents the district abutting CitiField), the City Club of New York, and nearby residents filed a petition to stop the project, claiming the zoning applications were not properly filed and that development would violate "the public trust" because that land had been intended only for a baseball stadium.

A lower court was not persuaded by the petitioners and found the state legislature had allowed for "other uses to benefit the public" when it drafted the language in 1961.

However, Avella and his group were bolstered last July when the state's Appellate Division ruled unanimously against moving ahead with the mall.

In reading the administrative code, which in 1961 had allowed for Shea to be built, the court found that state legislatures had intended the space only for a stadium, even if the stadium was used for purposes other than sports. "Its focus is on the stadium, and the stadium only," Mazzarelli wrote in July. "There is simply no basis to interpret the statute as authorizing the construction of another structure that has no natural connection to the stadium."

She continued that "no reasonable reading" of the original code language would allow for a shopping mall to be constructed in the park, even if the shopping mall would be a boon to local residents and the city as a whole.

"We take no issue with the notion that Willets West is a potential driver of trade and commerce," Mazzarelli wrote. "However, the public trust doctrine is clear that any alienation of parkland must be explicitly authorized by the legislature."

Sterling-owned Queens Development Corporation has said in statements that it is confident the appeal will succeed, and that it looks forward to "reversing 100 years of pollution, creating thousands of good-paying jobs and growing the local economy." Sterling Equities did not immediately return emailed requests for comment.

"It is unfortunate that the Willets West developers have chosen to continue this legal battle," Avello said in a statement. "The fact of the matter is that this is parkland, it belongs to the people."

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