[Update 6:19 p.m. 5/15/1029: This piece has been updated to include information from the NYCEDC]
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer wants a “bold” plan to house the 58,617 people who slept in city shelters last Friday.
Stringer met with Eagle reporters last week and said he wants to “continue the tradition of building housing for the poorest people” in the city. He hailed the transformative mid-century construction of public housing and the ambitious Mitchell-Lama program for middle-income New Yorkers.
But Stringer, who may soon run for mayor, stopped short of calling for the city to serve as builder and landlord for people experiencing homeless. Instead, he suggests that the city adjust its existing “Housing New York” plan by mandating that developers build a higher percentage of apartments for the lowest income New Yorkers — families of three who earn less than $28,000 per year. He also wants to create a land bank of city-owned property to facilitate the construction of permanently affordable housing.
What then of Willets Point, a 23-acre parcel of city-owned property next to Citi Field? Stringer doesn’t say.
The industrial wasteland next to Citi Field has sat dormant for more than a decade, even as the developers who lease the site from the New York City Economic Development Corporation — the Queens Development Group, comprised of Mets’ owners Sterling Equities and the Related Cos., which built Hudson Yards — bungled proposals for a casino, a shopping mall and an airport parking lot and now weigh the construction of a soccer stadium for a non-existent soccer team.
“I’m not a borough president or a city councilmember so I don’t go project-by-project, but overall, what our housing plan would suggest is a deeper subsidy, a revolving fund and prioritizing the low-income housing we need,” Stringer said when asked about Willets Point during a round-table conversation with Eagle reporters. “It will save money by closing down a lot of these shelters and commercial hotels. We would save a billion dollars for the city and build the housing we need.”
Stringer is the latest local lawmaker to bypass an examination of how Willets Point could serve low-income New Yorkers. Then again, few constituents are pressing the issue.
During the public advocate race, for example, only Queens Councilmember Eric Ulrich and Manhattan Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez addressed the vacant land, and their passing statements were only in response to Eagle questions.
“I haven’t seen the most recent iteration of the plan,” Ulrich told the Eagle in February. “I lost track after the court threw out the mall plan … Willets Point has been a blight on the landscape of Queens and it’s a good opportunity to redevelop that entire area.”
‘We can create recreational space, school space, affordable housing, infrastructure improvements in the area,” Ulrich said. “I just hope that whatever is there is good for Queens and good for people of Queens.”
Rodriguez has the distinction of being the lone lawmaker to join forces with a coalition of organizations known as Nos Quedamos, which demands the city devote the site to truly affordable housing development.
"I was there with the residents in Queens asking for the area at Willets Points to be dedicated to building affordable housing," Rodriguez said during a forum at the CUNY Graduate Center earlier this year. "Left behind communities desperately need affordable housing.”
But the coalition, led by disgraced former State Sen. and Councilmember Hiram Monseratte, seems to be on their own in considering how the land could best serve low- and middle-income communities members.
As the city turned its attention to the Amazon development plan in Western Queens and, more recently, to the Belmont Park Plan just over the border in Nassau County, the vacant patch of land in between has been mostly forgotten.
In January, the NYCEDC did finally release two formal redevelopment proposals put forth by the Willets Point Task Force, an opaque group that formed in 2018 to create a plan for a 17-acre parcel of the 23 total acres long known as the “Iron Triangle.”
The first phase of development, regardless of which proposal is selected, will include construction of 1,100 units of affordable housing on six acres, according to the NYCEDC.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
One proposal calls for creating “a true, high-density, mixed-use district” that is “primarily residential” and features housing at different levels of affordability, a new high school, retail space, a fire station and a health center, according to the NYCEDC. Basically, a whole new neighborhood.
The other proposal would create a 270,000 square-foot soccer stadium with capacity for 25,000 seats. The stadium would share parking with Citi Field. Task Force co-chairs Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Councilmember Francisco Moya have publicly supported the soccer stadium in the past.
NYCEDC said the city will conduct remediation and infrastructure improvements to prepare for development of the first phase of the plan as part of a 2018 agreement, which includes 1,100 units of affordable housing. The agency and the Queens Development Group will also work to engage the community and advance the proposals for the remaining 23 acres of the site, NYCEDC said.
In 2008, the City Council approved a plan that would designate 35 percent of 5,500 units — 1,925 units — as affordable housing for families who earn less than $99,840 a year, including 800 units for families who earn less than $38,400 a year.
During a press conference with local reporters in January, Katz said the 1,100 units of affordable housing included in the task force’s proposal were just the first phase of development and directed questions about additional housing to the NYCEDC.
“One of the compromises was the fact that the first phase, which was six acres, is going to be 100 percent affordable housing,” Katz said. “The 5,500 units of housing originally was market value and affordable so building the 1,100 units of affordable first takes most of that affordable into account.”
In little more than two years, Queens will have a new borough president, New York City will have a new mayor and the majority of the City Council will be term-limited out of office. Only the record-high number of homeless New Yorkers will remain the same.
It’s worth considering how the city’s next leaders will find them homes — and how those leaders might consider Willetts Point a resource for affordable housing.
David Brand is managing editor of the Queens Daily Eagle. Follow him on Twitter @DavidFBrand