Regional News

Mixed Use And Views On Willets

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement of a long-sought $3 billion development project to convert the Willets Point, Queens, junkyard area adjacent to the Mets’ Citi Field baseball park into a five-million square foot retail and entertainment district has triggered reactions that range from positive to skeptical.

Under the proposal, the Queens Development Group, a joint venture between Related Cos. and Sterling Equities Inc., the holding company of New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon, will develop the 23 acres known informally as the “Iron Triangle,” because of its concentration of auto-body shops.

Meeting at the Queens Chamber of Commerce last week, Bloomberg said the project could “serve as a catalyst for future development and investment.”

The city, according to a statement, expects to provide almost $100 million in capital funds toward demolition, environmental remediation, infrastructure and permanent land improvements.

It estimates that during construction, the project will generate more than $310 million in tax revenue, and once operational it will account for more than $150 million in annual tax revenue.

“To some degree, cost overruns are inherent in these kinds of projects,” said Robert Boland, a professor at New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.

He sees more positives than negatives.

“I’m pretty excited by this. It has all the hallmarks of a good plan. The area has been underutilized. You have three or four good pieces of pre-existing infrastructure that are not fully developed. You have LaGuardia Airport, the Mets, the U.S. Open [tennis], the World’s Fair site and all its parks nearby, and you have Long Island Rail Road and the subway and buses.”

The developer expects to build on both sides of Citi Field, which replaced Shea Stadium at the same site as the Mets’ new home in 2009. “Part of what makes it interesting is that it’s not a repurposing of the area,” said Boland.

According to Queens Development, the project, when finished, is expected to feature hotel, retail, and convention center use, although the need to clean up contaminated land — 23 of the 62 acres in question — will push back the housing part of the plan until 2025. The city included a clause that would require the developers to pay $35 million if groundbreaking on the housing does not occur by 2025. The city could also replace the developers then.

“We see this phenomenon where developers promise grand things that are done in phases. Then a city has to put a great deal of infrastructure only for a small part of the project to get done,” said Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and an author on convention center economics.

The project, which the mayor prioritized when taking office in 2002, received Queens Community Board, New York City Planning Commission and City Council approval in 2008. On Thursday he announced a modified version.

“In a positive sense, it’s more attuned to the reality of the marketplace today, much less than what had been promised and described,” Sanders said. “There’s nothing bothersome or offensive, but for the most part it looks like just a great big shopping mall. Retail is a very fragile thing. That’s the dilemma.”

Boland said the Mets receiving the land for free is not a “naked concession” and thus no cause for alarm.




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