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City says no dice to Willets casino

A proposal submitted by the developers of Willets Point in 2011 shows a casino and hotel in the parking lot to the west of Citi Field, and a parking lot and green space over Willets Point. Image courtesy Willets Point United
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The city is adamantly denying a casino is bound for Willets Point after a recently unearthed 2011 proposal shows the developers of the project initially wanted to construct a large gaming hall and hotel on a Citi Field parking lot and simply pave over most of the Iron Triangle for parking.

In a significant departure from what the city asked for in a request for proposals in May 2011, the Queens Development Group hoped to build a nearly 1 million-square-foot casino on what is technically public parkland, pave over nearly all the area now occupied by auto shops and junkyards and provide no housing, affordable or otherwise, according to a plan obtained by Willets Point United and New York City Park Advocates and provided to TimesLedger Newspapers.

The plan was submitted in September 2011 by the group — a joint venture between Related Cos., a development firm owned by Stephen Ross, and Sterling Equities, a real estate company owned by the New York Mets’ Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz. Wilpon and Katz lease from the city the land for Citi Field and its parking lots, which technically sit on Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

The city immediately shot down the idea in 2011, according to a spokesman from the city Economic Development Corp., and sent the group back to the drawing board.

“There is no casino being built at Willets Point, period. A proposal in 2011 that included a gaming use was rejected. And the agreement with the Queens Development Group to clean up and transform this long-blighted area into a dynamic, mixed-use district expressly prohibits any gaming uses,” EDC spokesman Nick Kelly said.

The contract between the city and the developers prohibits gambling, EDC said.

A spokesman for the group also denied that the plan would ever see a resurrection.

“Our plans for Willets Point do not include an Indian or commercial casino, which is illegal,” the group said.

In the initial proposal, the partners hoped to pay $100 million for the Willets Point land and touted an agreement with the Long Island-based Shinnecock Indian Nation and casino developer Triple M Development to run the betting depot.

But table gaming is currently illegal in the state, although a process of amending the constitution is underway and state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has floated the idea of a casino in Willets Point in the past. On the other hand, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that should gambling become legal, he would only authorize a select few upstate casinos.

The group’s current plan calls for a 1.4 million-square-foot mall on the parking lot west of Citi Field and about 2,500 units of housing. Land use lawyers representing the partnership often play up the affordable housing and the cleaning of more than 20 acres of contaminated soil.

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“Our goal for Willets Point is to end the pollution and clean it up,” Ethan Goodman, land use counsel for the partners, said at a recent meeting.

Jesse Maysr, also a land use counsel, said that fulfilling the 2008 proposal of housing and schools was the “most important.”

But the group’s initial proposal showed that they wanted to do just the opposite.

“Environmental remediation is costly and complicated,” the 2011 proposal said at one point. “Extending utilities to site (power, sewer, stormwater) is a significant burden,” another line said.

And the much-ballyhooed affordable housing, which was enshrined in a deal struck by former City Councilman Hiram Monserrate at the 11th hour, was nowhere to be found.

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

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