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Legal Pretexts: Urban Business Owners' Rights Violated

By Irene Prestigiacomo, Robert LoScalzo and Joseph Ardizzone
Willets Point United
Willets Point, N.Y.

Seventeenth Annual National Conference on
Private Property Rights
October 26, 2013
The Century House, Latham, N.Y.

Irene Prestigiacomo: Thank you so much, Carol. Well, I'm not going to speak too much anyway from a prepared speech because I want to thank you all first for being here, for supporting the Property Rights Foundation. Your support and your attendance is enormously, gratefully accepted and acknowledged by Willets Point United and the Property Rights Foundation and Carol LaGrasse. We can never express or find the right words to express our great gratitude towards her and this organization for how they've helped us. We have come so far and I believe we've stopped the eminent domain process which was in progress with an amicus brief that was filed because of what was said by us here a couple of years ago.

Anyway, I don't want to take up a lot of time because I want Robert, who has been our backbone and our brains in so much and in research and he can put things together. He's a lot more articulate than I. Because he's a lot younger, too. He will speak because we want you to know exactly what's going on and some of you here are probably not too familiar with this Willets Point and what's happened, so we wanted to make it concise. We have limited time. But a lot more time than they allow you to speak when you go to defend yourself at community boards and City Hall Council meetings. There you've got three minutes.

"Who are you?"

"Oh, just a private citizen who owns some property and you're taking my life away from me."

"You've got three minutes!"

And you're cut off. But the people who are going there to take your property, the developers, the big, big politicians that are connected with the City officials, and the agencies that are supposed to be our checks and balances to protect us, they get carte blanche to speak as long as they like. It's infuriating, it's frustrating. I've run the gamut of every emotion that can possibly be for a human being. Even my dogs feel my frustration when I walk them. I try to prepare a lot for this and you go through, I think it was three weeks prior to this meeting I knew I would be speaking here and I'm washing the dishes or I'm walking the dog or I'd wake up in the middle of the night, my heart pounding, "I have to tell them this about that happened. I have to tell them about this committee, uh, council member who did this to us and who acted like we had the Bubonic plague." And they're supposed to be representing us. Just so much frustration. I can get very emotional. But I'll stop. I'll let Robert take over because he can put it all concisely for you and make you understand what we've gone through. If you have any questions at the end of it, please feel free to ask us at any time. We can try to stay for the whole day.

And there was just one other thing. I almost forgot it. Joe. Without Joe's assistance... he's the only resident there. This man is eighty-one years old and he's done everything. He has more energy than I do. And I just thank him immensely and I have to say it publicly because he's just a wonderful person and he contributes so much. So, I'll give it to Robert and he's allowed me to interject. Interruptions are usually rude but today it'll be a polite interjection because he's allowing me to jump up and say things that I think of because we are trying to get as much information to you as we possibly can. So, Robert LoScalzo will now address you and give you his information about Willets Point. Thank you.

Robert LoScalzo: Hi, everybody. I'm Robert LoScalzo. I'm a documentary video producer who's been following the situation in Willets Point, Queens, since 2007. This is the fourth consecutive year that Irene, Joe, and myself have attended this conference to update the group on what is happening at Willets Point, that is the City's intention to redevelop the entire sixty-two-acre district and the community's opposition to it. I'm going to summarize a little bit of the history of it, not to dwell too long, but for people who are not acquainted with it at all I'll tell you what has happened over the last year. And I think you'll see that the moral of the story is that the land use review procedure in New York City is basically a charade with elected officials going through the motions, having public hearings, people testifying for their two or three minutes, as the case may be, and at the end of the day there's no chance whatsoever of defeating a project like this.

So, the area of Willets Point is a sixty-two-acre area located in Queens, just a few miles from Manhattan and it's a very attractive property for a lot of reasons located between both of New York City's airports and it happens to be located directly across the street from Citi Field stadium which is where the New York Mets play baseball. It's a relatively new stadium. It's important that the stadium property and much of the surrounding property is actually mapped parkland within Flushing Meadows Corona Park. If you were there you would see the proximity of the stadium and the beginning of the Willets Point community just east of it which extends for sixty-two acres.

Willets Point is home to a concentration of roughly two hundred and fifty industrial manufacturing and mechanical businesses and it's best known for its network of scores of automotive repair shops. Many of these shops are operated by new immigrants from Latin America, Afghanistan, India, Ukraine, actually from all over the world. And here are just some of their business cards. They provide expert repair services at very low prices and they attract a clientele from the tri-state area and beyond. Many of these property and business owners came together to form Willets Point United in 2009 in response to the City's intended development of the area where they work.

Now, you might think that with such a cluster of industrial businesses in a sixty-two-acre area that the City would actually provide some support to this network of businesses. Instead, the City of New York has systematically neglected the area. They've never supported the businesses or property owners there. The streets are dilapidated, to put it kindly. The City doesn't provide sanitary or storm water sewers. There are cesspools there instead. Probably one of the only places in such proximity of Manhattan where folks are still using cesspools. The City doesn't remove snow in the winter. The City services that are available everywhere else are denied here. And as Irene likes to point out, she pays $53,000 in taxes annually on her property and essentially receives nothing in return except persecution by the City government. So, having created these blight-like conditions at Willets Point, the City then leverages those conditions to say that total redevelopment is necessary to "clean up" the area. And such development must be done by developers that are designated by the City. Not by the existing property owners. All the property owners are forced to sell their properties to the City and the functioning businesses must vacate the area.

So, in 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the complete redevelopment of all sixty-two acres of Willets Point to become New York City's "next great neighborhood." And just in case I haven't said it before, Willets Point is a triangular piece of property just across the street from Citi Field. And the intent of this development is to turn this (area of businesses) into that (mostly apartment houses). And what the City said at the time in 2008, is that this entire area must be developed and remediated comprehensively and contiguously. You couldn't split off just a piece of it. You had to take over the whole thing, eject everybody who's there in order to do what they said they wanted to do with the property.
So, in New York City that proposal to do this triggers a land-use review process that culminates in a vote of the New York City Council. It was very contentious but in 2008 the City Council ultimately approved a generic development plan for all sixty-two acres of Willets Point with no developer identified. The main selling points of that development are listed on the screen and I would in particular draw your attention to the fact that there were to be many units of housing and affordable housing. This was really sold as an affordable housing project and that would be a huge benefit to the community which is desperate for housing like that. And also the living wage provision which was negotiated with the Central Labor Council of the City of New York. So, all of these agreements were made and the council approved this project.

Then under the threat of eminent domain the City began to purchase Willets Point property. It so happens that they concentrated their acquisitions right along the western edge of the site which is located directly across the street from the stadium. As the City purchased those properties the businesses there became tenants of the City of New York.

In 2011, the City announced that it would implement the development project in phases, even though they had previously said that it was not feasible to implement the project in phases. So, the Council was sold a comprehensive development of sixty-two acres but the City backed away from that. And without getting into the minutiae of it there were pending lawsuits at the time. There was an Article Seventy-eight that was pending which basically demonstrated that the City could not proceed with all sixty-two acres because they have to modify the highway which is under federal control. They needed approval to make modifications to the highway that they did not yet have. And so essentially the City said to itself, what's the most amount of development we can do, circumventing the need to modify the highway?" And they came up with this phased plan partly because they were taken to court by Willets Point United and read the riot act.

The first phase, which they call Phase 1, consists of twenty-three acres located right across the street from Citi Field stadium. The City then started eminent domain proceedings against owners of properties within Phase 1 who hadn't already sold to the City. Property Rights Foundation of America submitted an amicus brief in that case and the City would later withdraw that particular eminent domain proceeding, just two business days before the oral arguments were to come up because they had realized that they were reconfiguring the plan again to such an extent that the reason they were condemning was no longer the reason that they were condemning.

Meanwhile, also in 2011, the City issued a request for proposals from developer firms interested in developing that Phase 1 of Willets Point. And the RAP (request for proposal) pertained only to the Willets Point in Phase 1 property. There were four responses to that RAP from individual developers or teams of developers. Three of the proposals conformed to the specifications of the RAP and would have built exactly what was expected within the Phase 1 area in proportion to the sixty-two-acre site. So, for example, one proposal would have built one hundred percent affordable housing units. Nowhere near the number that was originally envisioned but the benefits that were sought in 2008 would have been achieved by these proposals on the twenty-three acres. So, the City had said, and it stipulated in writing with local officials, that it would include Queens officials in the decision making and the selection of a developer.

Instead, they violated that pledge. They instituted a closed-door process and City Hall rejected those three proposals and instead they chose a fourth proposal. This proposal expands the development to include the forty-eight acres of public parkland property that is located west of Citi Field stadium. Property that was never mentioned in the RAP, that is not physically connected to Willets Point. So, who submitted this winning proposal? It turns out to be a joint venture of Sterling Equities, whose owners also own the New York Mets, who play baseball inside this stadium and they control the operation at that stadium, and Related Companies, which is a very well-known company in New York doing a lot of activity around town. So, what they're trying to do is consolidate all of the properties surrounding the stadium and build to the west and the east. But they were never asked to build on the west and they were never asked to build on parkland property which is now the majority of property involved in this project.

Remember, the City started out intending to construct the "next great neighborhood east of Citi Field. But the priority of Sterling and Related is to construct a commercial shopping mall on the forty acres of mapped parkland on the other side of the stadium. And because that parkland is where the Mets fans park their cars now, when they attend baseball games, if you build a mall there you must relocate the parking somewhere else. So Sterling and Related intend to move the parking onto the Willets Point Phase 1 property where the "next great neighborhood was supposed to be built. So, the need to relocate the parking has become the new pretext for the City to take over the Phase 1 property.

I have diagrams from the developers' own environmental review documents. So, this is now the pretext for the developer to evict everybody who's there, demolish the structures and pave it over for parking and, I guess, so that they can save face and not have the allegation that, well, it was supposed to be one thing but you're making it a parking lot. They're also including a small hotel and some ancillary retail here to front the stadium so it will be something more than just a parking lot, technically speaking. The point being that everything that's there now including one hundred and thirty-nine businesses will have to leave to make way for that.

Not exactly delivering the benefits that were touted back in 2008. What about the "next great neighborhood that was the original goal. Sterling and Related say they will build the housing including the affordable housing but beginning in the year 2025. They can't do it until the new highway access ramps are first constructed but their contract with the City doesn't obligate anyone to take responsibility for building these ramps. And so, if no one is going to build the ramps there's no condition in the future where you can ever put the housing there. If they were serious about building the housing we think that somebody would be obligated to put up the money and to actually construct ramps and there would be a time line for that. In addition Sterling and Related can choose to pay a cost of doing business, a penalty of $35 million, in the year 2025 which will be worth a lot less than it is now and not build the housing. And so, at the end of the day, we may end up with just a mall built on parkland on the other side and a parking lot being put on Willets Point property.

The City has also made numerous other changes versus what they said in 2008. And I just want to show you quickly what some of those are. The City originally said it was going to recoup the cost of acquiring the Willets Point property by selling it to the developer. Instead now the City intends to "gift" twenty-three acres to Sterling and Related for the price of one dollar. And some of the contractual terms here speak to this including that there can be appraisals done but under no circumstances will any appraisal alter the price of the sale which is one dollar for twenty-three acres located about five miles from Manhattan.

Irene Prestigiacomo: One interjection. This took place immediately after or within a week after the eminent domain case was dropped and they had to retreat and recoup for their lawsuits and find another plan to come at us. They... Mayor Bloomberg came out and said, "You know what, I'm Santa Claus. You can have this property." Our money, your money, taxpayer money, $200 million he gave to them for a dollar.

Robert LoScalzo: In a deal that was cooked up in City Hall and with the Economic Development Corporation, the Queens officials that had been promised previously that they would be in the room for the decision were excluded. So Willets Point United started to communicate all of this to the press which picked up on it and now the public began to sense that something is not right and that they are not delivering what they said they would in 2008. And they're changing the terms of the bargain.

Also, the City originally said that the developer would pay the cost of environmental remediation on the property which was supposed to be a huge benefit because it was supposed to be very expensive. So, we would go into the world, we would find a developer willing to sink hundreds of millions of dollars in that property to so-called "clean" it. But, now, as it turns out, the taxpayers are giving a grant to Sterling and Related of ninety-nine million and they say that forty million of that is expected to cover the remediation and if it doesn't the City may perhaps make even more funds available. The City had agreed, as I said before, with Central Labor Council, to include a living wage provision in their request for proposals. Instead, the City omitted that agreed provision from the RAP. They've never explained how they came to do that.

The City originally said that it would assist in relocating the businesses out of Willets Point. Now, one hundred and thirty-nine tenant businesses in the Phase 1 area are receiving eviction notices right now as we speak. The City is offering a payment to those businesses equal to twelve months of their present rent, which is low by the area's standards, to any business that agrees to vacate by November thirtieth. So, it's a carrot and a stick approach. The carrot being, "Would you like to have your twelve months rent?" and the stick is the eviction notice, which they're going to have to leave one way or the other at that time. So, you're more inclined to take your twelve months and get out by November thirtieth. So, it could be more or less a ghost town by that date. Irene?

Irene Prestigiacomo: That's another way that they've come to be able to attack the other people in Phase 2 and Phase 3. I have tenants on my property. I'm getting phone calls by people that have to get out. They're closing down my business with these proposed violations. I paid $8,600 for violations that they say... That's another story. He could go on and on but what they're doing here, also, is getting rid of my tenants. What do I do when I have no tenants? Can I pay my taxes? No. They just come right in and take my property. And to this day they have never even contacted me. I think I'm the only property owner there they've never, ever contacted me to ask me if I wanted to sell my property. And they told every politician, every city agency, everyone involved that they've contacted everyone, fairly negotiated and that they've just met with brick walls. It's a lie. And I don't lie. All right Robert.

Robert LoScalzo: I see I have about nine minutes left. So, I have to plow through this. We've talked about this but the City had promised in writing that a Queens-based advisory committee would help to select the developer. They reneged on that.

So, all of this was communicated to the press and it became common knowledge in New York City that the City, Sterling and Related were deviating significantly from what was promised before. And civic associations and other special interest groups then became involved and that was collaboration that Willets Point United did not have back in 2008 when they were opposing the project alone.

Any presentation about Willets Point has to at least mention the horrendous traffic conditions in the area when there is a Mets game or U.S. Open tennis event and adding a 1.4 million square foot shopping mall in parkland right at the nexus of all these highways is not really a bright idea. And there's no way, even with the developers' mitigation in place. There are horrendous conditions such as waiting ten minutes at intersections. This is the best that they can achieve after they mitigate everything. For all those reasons, the project generated wide-spread opposition. In particular parkland was never supposed to be involved in the Willets Point project. But once it became involved the sacrifice of those forty-eight acres became a lightening rod issue generating even more opposition. The legality of building a mall on parkland in New York City without following the alienation process* for that parkland is very questionable and dubious and there needs to be a lawsuit challenging that. It's fair to say that as the City Council began to evaluate this project recently the sentiment of the public was right as you see in an article, "Willets Point Fails the Test."

Back in 2008 Willets Point United really didn't have much support from the surrounding communities but now the surrounding communities really stepped up. And a group called the Queens Civic Congress consisting of more than a hundred civic associations throughout Queens passed a resolution opposing the project. The community board that is closest to the site, Community Board Three, voted 30-1 to deny the application and there was other expressions of community opposition from other groups.

Irene Prestigiacomo: And I'd like to point out that when this project was taking place our community board treated us like lepers. They can't stand us being there. And We're constantly there, constantly there. But they are buddy-buddy in collusion and corruption with the lawyers, Wilpon is there, his son, because he owns developers that are doing all this. I mean the connection is just appalling.

Robert LoScalzo: The City Council held the public hearing on September third and Carol LaGrasse traveled all the way there to testify in opposition to the plan. Irene and Joe also testified. The opposition outnumbered the support. In the weeks after that hearing and before the council voted in October, there were public protests in Queens and rallies against the project. "Hundreds Rally Against Willets Point Project." This is how the press framed the issue. "Housing Taking a Back Seat to a Shopping Mall." "Residents Still Want Housing and not a Mall." Finally, this came to a vote of the City Council on October ninth. The outcome... approved, by a vote of 40-3 with one abstention, leaving us to conclude, as a letter writer to a Queens newspaper did, "Council Beholden to Rich Interests over Willets Point."

And if I could just close by saying it seems to me that the elected officials here instead of seriously evaluating whether or not this deserved to be approved, instead they sought ways to sweeten the deal for their own area. "How can we put lipstick on a pig?" as Irene said last night. And what they came up with was, "Well, the mall will be built there and the parking lot but the developer has agreed to build a rooftop garden and farm on top of the mall. And they will fund that to the tune of $2 million. The developer has agreed to provide a $15.5 million dollar fund to make improvements to the remainder of the park where they are not building the mall. So, in other words, we'll let them, basically, do what they want and we've sweetened the pot for the community to kind of ameliorate it.

So, where they are vulnerable is on the issue of the mall being built on the parkland. The City Council never really analyzed that in any meaningful way. Willets Point United sent legalistic letters there explaining why this cannot be done and there needs to be a lawsuit that challenges the validity of doing that. And we know there are people in this room who may be able to help make that happen. It would probably have to be pro bono but there are a good number of community groups in Queens that would like to be the plaintiffs. So, if anybody can help we're sitting right here at this table. We're happy to exchange business cards.

But we do want to let Joe come up and make remarks for a couple of minutes before our time is up. So, this is Joe Ardizzone coming now, the sole resident of Willets Point.

Joe Ardizzone: Hi, everyone. Glad to see you all, especially Carol LaGrasse. I am the only resident at Willets Point, as of now. Born and raised there years ago and I just want to let everybody know that I kind of like the place. I've lived there all my life. I still live there today and I wish that everyone could have my experiences. I want to let you know that I'm very comfortable there. I get to know all the people of the area. They're hard working and sometimes you see the lights on in their businesses until one or two o'clock in the morning, getting prepared and sending out whatever jobs that they may have to get it done and satisfy each and every customer that they have.

I've been there my whole life. I have to leave... but now I have to leave the area. It's quite disheartening to me. I'm eighty-one years of age and I can't see leaving. As far as I'm concerned the deceit and deception of all the community boards that I've been to and the changes, it's really astounding and appalling to me. I want to thank Carol LaGrasse for coming over and speaking for us and defending my Constitutional rights, but they don't seem to count. Thank you very much.

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