NY Puts the Brakes on Giant Mall by Mets’ Park

MANHATTAN (CN) — A proposal to build a mall near the Mets’ CitiField in Queens hit a roadblock Tuesday when New York’s highest court ruled that state law does not permit the developers to build it, as parts of the property are technically parkland.

The development, known as Willets West, would sit directly next to CitiField, where the Mets have played since 2009. When the new stadium was built, the city joined with Mets owner Sterling Equities and real estate firm Related Companies to plan redevelopment of Willets Point, 61 acres of designated parkland despite much of the landscape being paved over and dominated by industrial properties.

The land, which includes the former Shea Stadium site, has no sewers, sidewalks or streetlights, is replete with potholed and rutted streets, and is prone to flooding.

Sterling subsidiary Queens Development Group came up with a plan for a 1.4 million-square-foot project, whose first phase would include a shopping mall with more than 200 stores and a movie theater.

Later phases were to include construction of 2,490 housing units, a public school and open space. But the plans became divisive as projected cleanup costs rose and affordable housing in the project was scaled back.

As a result, in 2014 state Senator Tony Avella, with several organizations, businesses, and users of Flushing Meadows Park, filed what’s known as “a hybrid CPLR article 78 proceeding,” to stop the project, claiming the zoning applications were not properly filed and that the development would violate the public trust because the land had been intended only for a baseball stadium.

A lower court was not persuaded, and found the Legislature had allowed “other uses to benefit the public” when it drafted language in 1961 creating section 18-118 of the City of New York’s Administrative Code, which governs the area.

But Avella and his group were bolstered when the state’s Appellate Division ruled unanimously against moving ahead with the mall.

In that ruling, Appellate Judge Angela Mazzarelli found the Legislature had intended the space only for a stadium, and found that the parkland, even if in name only, cannot be developed without special zoning permits approved by the Legislature, which the developers have not sought.

The developers appealed to the state’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, which ruled 5-1 Tuesday that the project cannot be built as it stands due in large part to the land’s designation.

“There is no dispute that the Willets West development is proposed to be constructed entirely on city parkland,” Judge Rowan Wilson wrote for the majority. “The public trust doctrine is ancient and firmly established in our precedent.”

Noting the language used in the city’s 1961 legislation, Wilson found that “nothing in that language authorizes the construction of a shopping mall or movie theater; rather, it authorizes the City to enter into agreements permitting others to use the stadium and its appurtenant facilities,” and that the statute governing the land must be construed as a whole.

The developers’ argument hinged on language in the 1961 legislation to facilitate “improvement of trade or commerce” at the site, which they said their project would achieve. But Wilson and the majority didn’t bite, finding that argument would lead to an absurd result.

“Defendants’ interpretation of the statute would permit the conversion of the parkland into a second Times Square or Wall Street, which is decidedly not evidenced in the statutory language,” Wilson wrote. “Only the state Legislature has the power to alienate parkland for purposes other than those for which they have been designated.”

While the majority acknowledged that remediation of Willets Point is a laudable goal, “the text of the statute and its legislative history flatly refute the proposition that the Legislature granted the City the authority to construct a development such as Willets West in Flushing Meadows Park.”

Judge Janet DiFiore, the only dissenter, wrote that “Willets West is designed to achieve the legislative objectives laid out expressly in the statute — improvement of trade and commerce and the promotion of recreation, entertainment, amusement, and cultural betterment.”

State Sen. Tony Avella, who represents the area, seemed thrilled with the decision.  “Today’s decision was a resounding victory for the public trust doctrine and residents across New York State,” he said in a statement. “In a city where public land is in short supply, simply handing over parkland would be an absolute disgrace and a betrayal of the public trust. This victory sets a precedent for decades to come that our government cannot give away our parkland or be complicit in a developer’s heist of public land.”

Queens Development Group was less than thrilled, saying in an email: “We are disappointed with the court’s decision, which further delays a project that will reverse 100 years of pollution, create thousands of good-paying jobs and turn vacant lots into a vibrant community.

“At a time when Queens needs private investment more than ever, the court’s decision disregards the City Council, the local community board and other stakeholders who have already approved the Willets West plan.”

The company said it is evaluating its next steps.

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