Photo by Joe Anuta
By Joe Anuta

The real estate firms tapped to redevelop Willets Point held a public meeting last week to solicit input on the potential environmental impacts of the $3 billion project, and many speakers were concerned with the idea of using the borough’s park land to house a large mall.

Related Cos., a Manhattan development firm, and Sterling Equities, a real estate firm owned by Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, owners of the New York Mets, won a bidding process to transform the junkyards and auto shops into a mixed-use neighborhood. But before any development can take place, the partners need to conduct an environmental impact study to see if effects on factors like traffic, neighborhood character and local businesses would be too great for construction to proceed.

An initial study was completed in 2008, but after significant changes, including the announcement this spring that the acreage for the development would nearly double, the partners and the city Economic Development Corp., which is facilitating the project, had to add a supplement to that study and took input on what should be looked at.

“This review must, and I repeat must, come to grips with the vehicular monstrosity the proposed development will surely create,” said Ben Haber, a longtime Queens activist opposed to the project who spoke at the hearing, at 98-02 Roosevelt Ave.

Haber and others had been predicting that the original development would create a catastrophe on already traffic-clogged Van Wyck Expressway, but said the problem would only worsen with the addition of 1.4 million square feet of retail space the partners want to build on a Citi Field parking lot, increasing the total area of the development from about 60 acres to slightly more than 100.

That development, called Willets West, was the main source of contention for other speakers as well.

The retail and entertainment section, which translates to about 30 acres, is slated to be built on parkland currently leased to the Mets for Citi Field parking.

A 1961 law states anything built on that land must directly benefit the Mets and Citi Field. The partners and the city Law Department contend the law allows the mall because the development will make money for Sterling Equities, and thus indirectly benefit the Mets.

But Christina Wilkinson, a Queens activist speaking on behalf of the civic group Citizens of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, said any use of parkland for commercial purposes would need to be cleared by the state Parks Department.

“It is very clear that the state Parks Department is intended to have a prominent role in evaluating whether or not proposed parkland alienation should be allowed — in this case, sacrificing parkland for the construction of a 1-million-square-foot shopping mall,” she said, referencing the state’s rules and regulations.

A woman speaking from the Pratt Center for Community Development contended the study should take into account the other developments within the borough’s largest park, including the proposed construction of a Major League Soccer stadium nearby.

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

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