By David Brand
Amazon generates the headlines, but there’s another controversial city-backed project in the works in Queens. And it’s been going on for a while.
Ten years have passed since the start of the Willets Point Development Plan saga, which reached a milestone on Dec. 20. That was the contract deadline for the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) to exercise a “call option” that would enable the city to reclaim two acres of land from the site developers — Queens Development Group — based on contract conditions.
Or maybe it wasn’t.
The NYCEDC, which owns the 23-acre parcel of land and turned development over to QDG — a joint venture between Mets owners Sterling Equities and The Related Cos. — for $1, discussed the plan at a Community Board 7 meeting Wednesday night. There, they told the members that the Dec. 20 call option deadline was not a hard and fast date, said Chuck Apelian, the first vice chair of CB7 and Rolando Bini, the executive director of the organization Parents in Action.
“[Wednesday’s meeting] was one of the most frustrating meetings we’ve ever had,” Apelian said. “It was just more gobbledygook … I’ve been on the project for 10 years and we’ve gone nowhere. Nothing has changed.”
UPDATE: The city has a 30-day grace period after the Dec. 20 deadline and plans to exercise the call option before moving ahead with the next, as yet undisclosed, phase of the development plan, officials said.
So far, a plan to build a casino has quickly died, a plan to build a shopping mall on Parks Department land was struck down by the state Court of Appeals, a plan to sign a stadium deal with New York City Football Club (NYCFC) fizzled and a recently proposed LaGuardia parking lot has faced intense criticism. In the process of figuring out what to build, the city razed the majority of the chop shops that cluttered the streets across from Citi Field.*
“We’re in the concept mode, but we need a concept,” Apelian said.
The 2008 plan approved by the City Council included 5,500 units of affordable housing, but that plan, too, has faded. In February, the city struck a deal with QDG to build 1,100 units of affordable housing on six of the 23 acres.
Councilmember Francisco Moya and Borough President Melinda Katz, who supported the 2008 development plan back when she was a City Councilmember, organized a task force to suggest more specific Willets Point projects.
The task force has narrowed the proposals down to either a mixed-use project with some housing, retail and offices or a soccer stadium surrounded by some “ancillary” retail businesses and hotels, Apelian said.
CB7 continues to wait on the Task Force to select one of the proposals, the NYCEDC to engage developers and the development community to determine what is feasible for the site, Apelian said.
Apelian said the NYCEDC is blaming the task force — and thus Katz and Moya, the task force chairs — for the delay.
Both Katz and Moya have publicly stated their support for a soccer stadium in Willets Point. In October, information about a potential Queens-based club competing in the United Soccer League (USL) — a second-tier professional soccer league — leaked in a suggested caption that accompanied a photo sent by Katz’s press team.
In the photo, Moya, Katz and soccer star David Villa, who played for NYCFC in Major League Soccer until last month, pose at Borough Hall after a meeting.
“One option that was discussed is a proposal to build a 10,000- to 25,000-seat soccer stadium in the Willets Point redevelopment area that would serve as home for the Queensboro Football Club, a proposed new team that would play in the United Soccer League, a second division professional league,” the statement said.
On Tuesday, a coalition of community leaders and organizations called Nos Quedamos demonstrated at City Hall to demand the city exercise the contract’s call back option, reclaim the two acres and block any high-profile development projects that violate the 2008 plan — including a proposed soccer stadium.
“I like soccer. I played soccer. There’s nothing wrong with soccer. But you have to meet the needs of the people in the community before you try to build a stadium,” said Nos Quedamos member and District Leader Hiram Monserrate. As a city councilmember, Monserrate helped negotiate the 2008 deal. He was later ejected from the state Senate after he assaulted his girlfriend and was sentenced to two years in prison for misusing city funds.
“They want to do a stadium, we don’t need that. They want to make a parking lot, we don’t want that,” said Rolando Bini, another Nos Quedamos member. “We want housing for our community.”
Katz and Moya have not responded to dozens of requests for comment or more information about the potential team or stadium deal. The Eagle has also repeatedly contacted David Villa’s representatives and media executive Michael Cohen, who owns the domain name QueensboroFC.com.
On Wednesday, the Eagle contacted several USL executives. Brett Luy, a senior vice president, was the only person who answered the phone and responded to a question about a Queens team.
“I won’t comment on that,” Luy said. “You’ll have to talk to our PR department.”
The “PR department” hung up the phone when Luy transferred the call. A low-level USL employee contacted by the Eagle said they had never heard of a Queens team.
Soccer writer Chris Kivlehan, citing soccer insiders, reported that the new USL team would likely begin play in 2020.
New York City soccer insiders told the Eagle on background that there are “reasons” the local lawmakers and USL executives have been silent about the team and potential stadium, but they would not describe those reasons.
It may be because none of the plans are concrete, Apelian said.
“If you don’t have a team and you don’t have funding, then we can talk ‘til the cows come home and it won’t matter,” Apelian said. “If we don’t have a stadium or we learn that it’s off the list [of proposals] then we should go back to sound development — housing, retail, schools, police and fire stations. Basically building a community.”
*A previous version of this article indicated that the city used eminent domain to obtain the property from businesses, as has been reported by other publications. Officials contend that all acquisitions were negotiated.