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Willets Point project clears federal hurdle

These ramps currently lead to Willets Point, but the Federal Highway Administration recently approved ramps that would address congestion associated with the Willets Point Redevelopment Project. Photo by Christina Santucci
TimesLedger Newspapers

The mayor’s plan to build a $3 billion, multi-use development in the Iron Triangle has won a key federal approval, a recently released document shows.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 62-acre Willets Point Redevelopment Project cannot move forward without extra exit ramps off of the Van Wyck Expressway. The state Department of Transportation refused to sign off on the ramps in 2009, but the Federal Highway Administration recently gave the ramp project its blessing in what officials at the city Economic Development Corp. called a major step.

“The findings and approval from the Federal Highway Administration for the Van Wyck Expressway ramps is a significant milestone for Willets Point, and the next step in realizing this ambitious project,” EDC said in a statement.

The partial green light came in a March 22 letter to the state DOT that said “this project would have no significant effect on the human environment.”

But the ruling will likely spawn further legal action by Willets Point business owners and advocates opposed to the city’s use of eminent domain to obtain portions of property needed for the development. Willets Point United, an organization that has already filed two lawsuits against the redevelopment, contends the federal agency used flawed logic to arrive at its conclusion.

The letter also states that the ramp project in terms of handling traffic “would function better with the proposed project in place as compared to the No Build Alternative.”

A spokesman for Willets Point United said the federal agency should not be basing its conclusions on the assumption that development is a foregone conclusion, but should instead evaluate if the expressway could even accommodate the surge in traffic in the first place. The development is expected to bring 80,000 additional daily car trips.

U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) had pushed the federal and state agencies to approve the ramps in order to spur economic development in the area, according to a spokeswoman.

“The redevelopment of Willets Point is extremely important to the overall economic revitalization of Queens, and the approval for this portion of the project is a great step forward,” Crowley said in a statement. “In short, it brings the certainty private investors need to move forward with their investments in this project.”

Willets Point United, along with civic groups in the area — including the Bay Terrace Community Alliance, the Juniper Park Civic Association, Citizens of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together and the Malba Gardens Civic Association — have long called for an independent assessment of the ramps to be used in the agencies’ evaluations instead of the contractor hired by EDC.

After the Willets Point Redevelopment Project was split into phases, the legality of which has also been challenged by Willets Point United in court, developers submitted bids to build Phase 1.

The EDC has denied Freedom of Information Law requests to release the names of the bidders, but it is thought a real estate company formerly owned by Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, who currently own the New York Mets, is in the running.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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