Monday, February 14, 2011

A Willets Point Warning Sign

As we have been arguing for quite some time, the NYC EDC is acting in an arbitrary and, we believe, extra legal manner in its desperate effort to try to get the Willets Point development off of the ground. We have also argued that, owing to this arbitrary behavior-actions that contradict what the agency has consistently said about its intentions for the Iron Triangle-the city council needs to re-assert its oversight role over the project.

Now comes this report from WNYC/NPR that underscores exactly what we have been trying to convey: "The city has started notifying holdouts in the Willets Point, Queens, development area of eminent domain proceedings. According to the Economic Development Corporation, there are nine businesses in the 20-acre Phase 1 area that haven't agreed to relocate. The issuance of letters on Friday, according to EDC spokesperson Julie Wood, is "the first step of the condemnation process," adding that negotiations with business owners would continue. A public hearing on the matter is set for March 2, at the Flushing branch of the Queens public library."

What negotiations? The blatant disregard for the truth by these unelected bureaucrats is absolutely breathtaking-there have been no negotiations with these property owners, nor with the other forty that simply don't want to hand their land over to a grasping city agency. But let's cut to the proverbial chase-EDC is doing a 180 on everything it said it would do when the Willets Point ULURP application was debated at the city council. And, as a result, the agency is not only courting a legal challenge, but is inviting an environmental disaster as well.

As we told NPR: "But Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for Willets Point United, a group of business owners fighting relocation, said the city can't initiate eminent domain proceedings until it gets environmental impact clearances for critical on and off-ramps for the Van Wyck Expressway. The ramps would eventually bring thousands of cars in and out of the area, adjacent to Citi Field. "If the ramps aren't approved, this project is an environmental disaster," said Lipsky."

Listen, however, as EDC changes the tune it has hummed all along about eminent domain: "While acknowledging the importance of highway ramps to the overall project, Wood said the eminent domain process can continue independently." But what happens if the ramps don't receive the necessary approvals? If that happens, we might end up with what many council members were worried would happen if eminent domain was triggered prematurely-the city could end up with empty property and no development.

Consider the original FGEIS: " "The City will not take possession of property acquired by eminent domain before the NEPA process is complete and the ramps are approved." – Willets Point FGEIS, Chapter 29, General Comments, Response G-8, September 12, 2008."

Consider the affidavit by Deputy Mayor Lieber before the Supreme Court: "The City will not acquire title to any property through Article 4 of the Eminent Domain Procedure Law (“EDPL”) until after ramps for the Van Wyck Expressway are approved by FHWA." -- Affidavit of Robert Lieber, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, June 29, 2009, filed with Supreme Court of the State of New York (WPU's Article 78 case)."

Precisely we we have labeled the EDC cohort a "liar's choir." But there's a larger issue at stake here. and it relates to the city council's role in the land use oversight process. Willets Point was approved for redevelopment over two years ago under certain conditions laid out by the city-and those conditions included the proscription of the use of eminent domain before the crucial ramps were approved. The ramps were considered the linchpin of the development-and there were no scenarios considered that excluded these traffic mitigators.

Now, because EDC is stymied by the approval process for the ramps, they seek to initiate a different phase of development that was never vetted by the city council-or properly reviewed by SEQR. What will this development be, and what kind of impact will it have? Who knows. But we are now being told the following by the economic deception corporation: "The EDC intends to put out a Request for Proposals for Phase 1 in April, which would comprise a retail corridor, hotel and housing, all of which the city hopes to complete by 2016. A completion date for the entirety of the Willets Point redevelopment, a 61-acre project approved in 2008, hasn't been set yet."

A retail corridor? What a great place for a certain big box store. In the original FGEIS, however, it was the retail component that generated the huge traffic impacts. What about the retail in the bogus Phase I? Since we don't know what's in the mix we can't know what kind of an environmental impact it will all have-and whether or not the ramps remain as crucial for this phase as they do for the project as a whole.

All of this cries out for a city council review-and the body needs to get back its oversight mojo. If many of the members have been complaining about Related's bait and switch tactics over Walmart at the Gateway II site, what about the even more egregious bait and switch tactics of the city itself? The time for council action is now.