Thursday, March 03, 2011

Crain's Covers Willets Point Condemnation

Crain's online edition is reporting on the city's effort to create a new Phase I of the Willets Point development-and condemn 13 property owners after telling one and all that no condemnation would be utilized until ramps off the Van Wyck were approved. The story does a fair job at covering the position of property owners-although we take issue with the editorializing that opined that WPU's chance of success was, "remote;" along with the header that calls this effort, "last ditch."

As Crain's points out: "Queens property owners whose land would be condemned to pave the way for the redevelopment of Willets Point announced Wednesday that they will reopen a legal challenge that they lost last summer. They did so as the city began formal proceedings to acquire their sites through eminent domain. A condemnation hearing to take testimony on the government's bid to buy blighted private property at fair market value to use it for a public purpose began at 4 p.m. Wednesday and was expected to continue for several hours."

The essence of the lawsuit is outlined: "The plaintiffs' case hinges on a pledge by the city that it would not seize any land until it got state and federal approval for the construction of two highway ramps that it considered essential to the project. Those Van Wyck Expressway ramps have yet to be approved, but the city is moving forward anyway. It argues that it can do so because it has split the redevelopment into two phases, and the first phase does not rely on the ramps."

Here's the city's argument: "Phase I will be completed and the substantial Phase I benefits will be realized even if the connections are not approved by the Federal Highway Administration and the New York State Department of Transportation,” a city official testified." But, as Mike Gerrard tells Crain's: "...the judge who dismissed their lawsuit last summer never heard of any two-phase plan. Mr. Gerrard has filed a motion with the same judge, Joan Maddon of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, to reopen the case."

Here's where Crain's gets into murky waters-conflating eminent domain challenges with what Gerrard is trying to accomplish: "Such legal challenges rarely succeed. In fact, Mr. Gerrard could not name the last time an eminent domain condemnation was successfully challenged in New York City. Despite lawsuits by opponents, eminent domain was used to remake Times Square and to clear room for a basketball arena in Brooklyn, where construction is now under way. It was also used for the proposed expansion of Columbia University."

As we pointed out yesterday-citing Gerrard's formal statement for the hearing-it is the ramp approval fiasco, the failure to get them approved, and the city's about face on the issue that faces legal scrutiny. An environmental challenge before the same court that took Deputy Mayor's sworn statement about the necessity of prior ramp approval should be worrisome to the Bloombergistas:

"The City has been pledging for years that this approval was imminent, but it has not arrived, and it is obviously nowhere in sight.  Thus the City has violated its pledges to the Court and its representations in the FGEIS, and in desperation is attempting to start the project without this essential approval.It is also attempting to start the project with no one having any clear idea what impacts the project would have with the ramps.  There are two prior analyses by the City of traffic conditions with the ramps -- the FGEIS and the Access Modification Report (AMR).  As we have previously shown in detail, the results of these two studies were radically different."

To its credit, however, Crain's does present the legal challenge as a serious obstacle: "Still, the case is significant because it threatens a signature project of the Bloomberg administration and the most advanced attempt to redevelop Willets Point, a busy but woeful industrial backwater at the edge of Flushing that has defied efforts to improve it for more than 40 years."

So, this might not be as, "last ditch," as Crain's would have its readers believe. In fact, it may be EDC that has driven the Willets Point development car right into the ditch-stalled no because of the agency's own frustration, devolving from its disingenuousness before state and federal regulators.

In our view, what should be ditched is the city's unintended devolution into stand up comedians. Take its statement to Crain's-please: "A Bloomberg administration official testified at Wednesday's hearing that the plan is “aimed at transforming a largely underutilized approximately 61-acre site with substandard conditions and substantial environmental degradation into a lively, mixed-use, sustainable community and regional destination.”

Only total hypocrites could characterize a development that will-at the very least-generate 80,000 car trips a day as the ultimate creation of a, "sustainable community." There is nothing sustainable about the Willets Point project-least of all the arguments used to support it. We'll see if Judge Madden finds the city's comedic patter amusing-but if she doesn't, this boondoggle will be sent reeling.

Mike Gerrard gets the penultimate last word: "The current redevelopment effort began in 2001. Mr. Gerrard said if he succeeds in his attempt to force the city to compile a new environmental impact statement assuming the highway ramps were not built, the project would be set back “probably a year, at least.”

At least! And the clock is ticking on these dishonest development divas-it won't be long before Mike Bloomberg becomes the lamest of lame ducks.