More than 12,000 construction jobs and 7,000 permanent jobs will come from the proposed Willets Point renovation, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, which includes retail space, a hotel and quicker access to the Van Wyck Expressway.
The reconstruction — to be funded by $3 billion in private investment, as well as $100 million in city capital for the demolition, remediation, infrastructure and permanent improvements — is expected to bring $4.2 billion in economic activity over the next 30 years.
The specifics of the long-awaited project were announced on June 14 during the Mayor’s meeting with the Queens Chamber of Commerce.
The city felt the plans for Phase 1 would best be done by the Queens Development Group, a joint venture of Sterling Equities, Inc. — owned by Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz — and Related Companies.
“For generations, Willets Point was neglected, no investments were made in the roads or in the sewers or in environmental remediation … and it remains one of the city’s most polluted sites,” Bloomberg said. “Each year, four million people visit the area. These are four million potential shoppers, local business and restaurants, creating thousands of new jobs and laying the groundwork for thousands of housing units.”
The plan includes the activation of the 126th Street corridor, building a 200-room hotel with 30,000-square-feet of retail and dining space. There will be an additional 20-acre parking area that can be converted for open recreation, it was announced, which will be open during the MLB offseason and during certain Mets road trips.
A new component, Willets West, is designated from a portion of the Citi Field parking lot to become one-million square feet of space for retail, entertainment and dining.
New off-ramps from the Van Wyck Expressway will be added after Phase 1 of the project is completed in the next 10 to 15 years to provide better access to the area. The off-ramps were approved in March by the Federal Highway Administration and the New York State Department of Transportation.
Still left open were tentative plans for affordable housing and a home for a planned convention center in the area — two concerns of Queens Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jack Friedman.
“We just hope the mayor’s vision, and the book he has with it, has all the chapters we want to see in it,” Friedman said.
Though affordable housing plans have been pushed back until after the project’s completion, many officials feel this is the way to bring new residents to the area.
“This is the way that you get to affordable housing,” said Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). “[The first phase of the plan] not only doesn’t preclude the development of the rest of Willets Point [including the affordable housing] but makes it more likely by activating the site and creating more magnets to draw people to the area.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledged on June 1 that talks for what would have been the largest convention center in the country near the Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park had fallen through. Not long after, officials began to eye Willets Point as a possible alternative.
If not Aqueduct as the convention center’s home, Friedman said Willets Point would be the most ideal and practical place for the center, based on its location.
State Senator Joseph Addabbo, who represents the area that includes Aqueduct and the Resorts World Racino, said he supported any kind of project that would benefit Queens and bring jobs. What Addabbo said was a time factor for Willets Point — environmental testing — had already been done at Aqueduct. The preparedness, he said, could relieve the push for time.
State Senator Jose Peralta released a letter to Governor Cuomo, two days before the official announcement, asking the governor to consider Willets Point for the planned convention center. Frank Sorbino, a spokesperson for the senator, said the mall announcement would not deter courting developers to Willets. Rather, he said, it would help the region’s case.
“This does not preclude the building of a convention center,” he said. “If anything, it makes Willets Point an even more attractive site for a convention center.”
Meanwhile, some property owners of long-established businesses at Willets Point continue to cry foul ball at what the city and the Wilpons may call a home-run.
“This is why the city initiated condemnation against local landowners? To get a hold of private property and hand it over to the Mets and their partner for the sum of $0? This project needs to be stopped in its tracks and the question of Willets Point should be set aside until a new mayor, one not imbued with a spirit of crony capitalism, is elected,” said Jake Bono, owner of Bono Sawdust.
Michael Rikon, the attorney who represented Willets Point property owners during their fight against eminent domain, said he predicted — while challenging the condemnation — that the taking would only benefit Sterling Equities and the Wilpons.
“Now here it is. We hit it directly on the nose,” Rikon said. “This is a figment of Bloomberg’s imagination. It’s really outrageous. There are still properties that are privately owned — they don’t control the entire site.”
Rikon said 152 businesses — and 654 people, the vast majority Hispanic — would be directly affected during Phase 1 of the project.
Jennifer Friedberg, spokesperson for the NYCEDC, said 95 percent of the project area is currently in city control. Relocation and worker assistance programs, she said, would be provided by the city to businesses in the 23-acre Phase 1 affected area.
But Rikon said already existing environmental concerns and the fact that the site “looks like a piece of Swiss cheese” make the project seem even less plausible.
The streets are pockmarked with deep craters and the area lacks necessary sewers and sidewalks. But Willets Point United, a group formed to oppose the city’s plans to take over the area, said the city deliberately neglected the area — despite the group’s push for years to have the severely deteriorated streets repaired.
“The whole thing is just mind-boggling,” Rikon said. “There’s no affordable housing in this thing. It’s a giant shopping mall. There’s absolutely no need for it, and it’s just going to benefit a private developer.”
But for property owner Danny Sambucci of Sambucci Bros. — a family-owned and operated Willets Point business since 1951 — the decision to strike a deal with the city, for an undisclosed amount, was a better business decision and meant less strife.
“If you’re dealing with the city, it just seemed like the wise thing to do,” he said.
— With additional reporting by Tim Petropoulos