Inside the First Baptist Church in East Elmhurst last Thursday night, dozens of community members listened to a presentation by documentarian Robert LoScalzo, who has followed the developments of the blighted area for a decade.
LoScalzo went through the timeline of events, starting with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to redevelop the land next to Citi Field in 2008. The original plan, negotiated with former Councilman Hiram Monserrate, would have built 5,500 units of housing, with 35 percent set aside for low and middle-income resident.
It would’ve also added a school, hotel, retail shops and two access ramps to the Van Wyck Expressway.
The City Council eventually approved the plan. In the deal, the city would acquire the property for Willets Point to the tune of $400 million, according to LoScalzo.
“But the city did not stick to the original plan,” he said.
In 2011, the city selected a team of developers, including Sterling Equities, which owns the New York Mets, and Related Companies, to redevelop Willets Point. Their proposal included the construction of a “gigantic shopping mall” west of Citi Field, LoScalzo said.
Dubbed the Queens Development Group, the developers would clear out and remediate 23 acres of land in the first phase of the project. They would build parking lots, retail stores and a hotel, followed by the “mega-mall.”
By 2025, their plan would construct nearly 2,500 units of housing, including 872 affordable units, according to LoScalzo.
“From what I’ve seen, the community does not like this plan,” he said, “which prioritizes the shopping mall above all else.”
LoScalzo contends that according to the contract, if the developers don’t build the housing, they have to pay the city $35 million. The documentarian said that amounted to an “opt-out clause” in the contract.
“We can end up with a shopping mall west of Citi Field, a parking lot at Willets Point and not much else,” he said.
LoScalzo, along with members of the East Elmhurst Corona Alliance, also fumed that the city sold the 23 acres of land to the Queens Development Group for just $1. They cast blame not only at Bloomberg, but also at Ferreras-Copeland, who helped re-negotiate the Willets Point deal, they said.
To date, LoScalzo said, the city has spent more $500 million on the proposal, including $250 million for the land, a $99 million grant for remediation, $35 million to install sewer lines, and $66 million for the new access ramps.
The first proposal that the Queens Development Group offered included a casino as well, he said.
“Whether they want a casino as they originally proposed or a mega-mall as they say now, obviously they’re interested in maximizing their profits,” LoScalzo said. “For all that money, you don’t get a guarantee of any housing.”
Other elected officials have proposed other uses for Willets Point. The Port Authority has suggested turning the area into long-term and employee parking and a car rental facility for LaGuardia Airport.
Borough President Melinda Katz has proposed building a soccer or hockey stadium there.
The developers ran into legal battles because the area where they want to build the mall is on public parkland. State Senator Tony Avella and other civic organizations sued the city and the developers to stop the project. An appellate court ruled against the city last year.
Now the case is heading to the New York State Court of Appeals, which has a hearing on April 25.
“Whatever ends up on that property, it should be something that the community genuinely wants and needs,” LoScalzo said.
His presentation was followed by a panel featuring opponents of the current plan, including former Councilman Hiram Monserrate and park advocate Ben Haber, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Monserrate, who has filed that he will run for his former seat with the Campaign Finance Board, spoke largely about the gentrification of the neighborhoods he used to represent.
“This neighborhood here, we have a blessing and a curse,” he said. “The blessing is your properties are worth so much more than you ever dreamed about, the curse is that the people who grew up in this neighborhood could no longer afford to live here.”
Though he said he wasn’t there to “talk about personalities or engage in personal swipes,” Monserrate indirectly mentioned Ferreras-Copeland’s role in renegotiating the plan.
Ferreras-Copeland, who was Monserrate’s chief of staff when he was in the City Council, declined to comment.
“The large-scale developers are buying influence in government,” he said. “The mayor and the council member have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of the people, not the billionaires.”
“These very rich and powerful individuals now have this tremendous property and they’re not talking about building housing,” he added. “They’re talking about a mall, a casino. Anyone who knows about casinos, their impact on the community is never a good one.”
Haber, a longtime park advocate in Queens, blamed Bloomberg and the city for creating blight in the Willets Point area for decades. He decried “big government” and its role in taking advantage of “little people.”
He added that if the plan was left to “hack politicians,” affordable housing would never get built.
Haber said he’s wants to “go back to square one” with the redevelopment, make the entire area affordable housing and leave developers out of the discussion.
Monserrate and members of the East Elmhurst Corona Alliance urged meeting attendees to pack the courthouse for the April 25th hearing. They’re arranging for a bus to leave from East Elmhurst to the White Plains courthouse at 10 a.m.
“Hopefully on April 25, we’ll get a favorable ruling,” Monserrate said.