Property Rights Foundation of America®
Founded 1994

Willets Point, A Focus of Judges, Candidates, Realtors, and Airport Planners - As Area Businesses Persevere

Robert LoScalzo
LoScalzo Media Designs

&
Irene Prestigiacomo,
Property Owner,
Willets Point United,
Willets Point, Queens County, New York City

 

Irene Prestigiacomo

Excuse me. I'm sorry for delaying this but I have my daughter here today so I'm a little nervous. She's an attorney and I wish that she was not listening to me vent because I've made speeches here in the past that were a little bit more informative. Today I'm venting because Robert will be presenting all that you need to hear about Willets Point.

Good morning. I'm Irene Prestigiacomo. I'm a property owner at Willets Point, New York. Before I speak though about Willets Point I would like to remember someone very dear to Robert and I who was such a major part of all of this. Joseph Ardizzone. Joe was the sole resident at Willets Point. It was Joe who traveled to Albany seven years ago and there met Carol and Peter LaGrasse. Carol invited Joe and I and Robert, Willets Point United, to come speak at the next seminar. Carol has since been involved in testifying for Willets Point at City Council hearings and other venues in support of us. Joe attended this seminar every year until his death in July of 2016. He had just celebrated his eighty-fourth birthday with Robert. Joe's passion was unequaled, his patriotism undaunting. He was a very kind and extremely honest and generous man. I believe Robert feels his loss even more than I do. Joe was his constant companion in all things related to Willets Point. He loved Robert and was deeply appreciative of all that Robert does for us. Theirs was a bond not easily put to rest and he is dearly missed.

Being here at the Property Rights Foundation seminar is the only bright spot in the ongoing saga of the taking of Willets Point. We know we are among friends and advocates of the right to life, to liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit to keep our private property. Robert has more specific and detailed information and a video for you. I, however, need to vent a little and would like to acquaint you with just some - just a few - of the many characters and agencies that are trying to take Willets Point.

Since the 1980s, the industrial park at Willets Point has attracted a copious list of people. Their sole intention was, and still is, to take our property for various and sundry agendas.

I'll begin with Donald Manes. He was the borough president - the corrupt borough president - of Queens who committed suicide rather than go to jail for his part in the parking meter scandal. He personally intimidated and threatened property owners at Willets Point.

Next is Claire Shulman, Manes's deputy, who served out his term and then was herself elected to the borough president. As president, she set about creating and nourishing a talent for illegal lobbying, forming liaisons, which would help her in her future endeavors. She went from borough president to the head of the Flushing Willets Point Corona Development Corporation, which today has big plans to develop all of the Flushing waterfront. She proved to be a good student under the tutelage of her former boss.

The next borough president was Helen Marshall. She and Claire were like bookends.

Alas, Miss Marshall also proved to be only interested in achieving the agenda of her benefactors, i.e. Claire Shulman and others, like another character now, Fred Wilpon, owner of the Mets baseball team and his development arm Sterling and Related.

Here we add another character to this list of carpetbaggers: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a personal friend of Fred Wilpon. Wilpon wants the property next to Citi Field, which, by the way, was once known as Shea Stadium, in honor of a very prominent attorney, William Shea, who was responsible for bringing Major League Baseball back to Queens. How his name was usurped is a story in itself and shows how politics and money, in the right or the wrong hands, can cheat anything.

Mayor Bloomberg hailed Willets Point as his great new legacy. He will turn the squalid area into a beautiful green space with businesses, hotels, a school, and an abundance of affordable housing, which was the linchpin in securing the approval of the city council to go forward and pick developers. There is a fair and just process for choosing developers but it was never implemented. Which is another great story.

Enter Mayor Bill de Blasio. And here I will just say that he wants our property for reasons and persons who shall remain anonymous for the present since de Blasio is an unscrupulous and fickle character in this saga.

You know folks, at every turn in the history of Willets Point there is a cast of characters and stories that would boggle your mind with their outright arrogance, their collusion and their corruption. We only have time to name a few so back in Queens we now add the new borough president, Melinda Katz, and to those whom she is beholden, who want Willets Point for a soccer stadium.

And last but by no means least, we have Governor Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo, the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority), the ports of authority of New York and New Jersey, and the many private investors who want Willets Point.

Robert, being an award-winning filmmaker, has been documenting the whole saga from the beginning. I can't wait to see, in the two-hour movie, what has been taking place there for over more than twenty years. I fully believe that every taxpaying citizen of New York upon seeing it will be justifiably outraged. We're being kept in the dark while the backroom deals are being made. And with this group of players and all the new ones that keep coming on the scene, we might just get lucky enough to win by default. One can always hope. We shall see.

I thank you for your kind indulgence and now Robert will give you a lot more information than I have.

 

Robert LoScalzo

I'm Robert LoScalzo, speaking on behalf of Willets Point United, a group of property and business owners in Willets Point, Queens. I want to recognize that the previous speaker, Irene Prestigiacomo, was one of 16 plaintiffs in a lawsuit that challenged a development plan involving Willets Point.

This past summer, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled in favor of plaintiffs, finding that the plan cannot proceed because it lacks legislative approval. Because of the court decision, there seems to be a reconsideration of what should happen at the Willets Point site, and officials are suggesting potential uses of the property that haven't been mentioned before.

I'm going to re-trace some of the history of Willets Point, and news of the past year.

Willets Point is a 62-acre industrial neighborhood located five miles from Manhattan. It's right across the street from Citi Field stadium, where the New York Mets play baseball, and the stadium sits on public parkland within Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the largest park in Queens.

Just across the Flushing Bay from Willets Point is LaGuardia Airport, which is operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and is undergoing a comprehensive redevelopment of its own.

Before the City made any move to redevelop Willets Point, it was home to 250 industrial businesses of all kinds. But its claim to fame is block after block of "no-frills" automotive repair and parts businesses. At reasonable prices, they can solve most any automotive problem.

Many of them are owned and operated by immigrants or minorities. They attract steady customers from the tri-state area and beyond.

Despite all of the business activity, and despite all of the property taxes paid year after year, the City of New York has neglected the area for decades, withholding municipal services that are routinely provided to virtually every other neighborhood. Most streets are severely dilapidated. The City then leverages the conditions that it created to declare the area "blighted" - the remedy for which is urban renewal, including the removal of all of the existing land owners and businesses.

In 2008, the City presented a controversial redevelopment plan for all of Willets Point. The City would acquire the property from its private owners, and recoup the cost through the eventual sale to a developer. The existing industrial businesses would be relocated to other sites. The developer would remediate the land, alleged to be contaminated from decades of industrial use, to residential standards; and construct "New York City's next great neighborhood," including 5,500 housing units.

The local elected official representing the area at that time was City Council member Hiram Monserrate. He would only approve the plan if it were amended to require that 35 percent of the housing built must be "affordable housing." So, on that basis, the plan was approved.

Then came the changes. By 2011 the City had divided the development plan into two phases. Phase One consists of 23 acres located directly across from Citi Field stadium. Under the threat of condemnation, the City was eventually able to purchase all of the Phase One property from its private owners.

The City then offered payouts to the tenant businesses to entice them to leave, and demolished the buildings there. So, this is the situation today at Willets Point: 23 acres of Phase One property, vacant for several years; and 39 acres of Phase Two property, where businesses remain operating. Problem is, business has declined for these shops - because customers drive past the vacant Phase One land, and presume the rest of the area is also shut down.

So to promote these businesses, we set up a Facebook page called "Willets Point: Open For Business" - and we invited the press to an event, hosted by State Senator Tony Avella, which launched it. This may also motivate the City to repair the streets where these businesses operate.

A centerpiece of this campaign is a five-minute video that I produced, featuring roughly thirty of the businesses introducing themselves. I'll show it to you now. It's a bit repetitive, but that's the point - it's a vast area with many, many businesses.

[Video plays]

To be clear, what you've just seen is the untouched Phase Two area of Willets Point. Now let's look at what the City has tried to do at Phase One.

In 2012, the City designated as developer "Queens Development Group," a joint venture of Sterling Equities, whose owners also own the New York Mets, and The Related Companies, a major player in New York development. But, not only would they develop the Phase One property, they would also expand the project to include parkland west of Citi Field stadium, currently used as parking spaces during baseball games, where they would construct a 1.4 million square foot shopping mall called "Willets West."

Since the shopping mall would eliminate parking spaces, they would move the parking over to the Willets Point Phase One land.

Although the City had spent upward of $250 million to acquire that land, it would be given to the developer for one dollar.

And although the developer purports to build housing later, they could essentially opt out by paying the City $35 million.

Obviously this differs significantly from what was envisioned in 2008.

A group of plaintiffs then sued, because the developers intended to construct a commercial shopping mall on parkland without authorization of the state legislature, violating the public trust doctrine.

The City and developers responded that (1) the 1961 law authorizing the former Shea Stadium on the parkland is broad enough to permit a shopping mall alongside the stadium, and (2) if the court were to scuttle the shopping mall, it would also scuttle the plan to remediate and revitalize Willets Point.

Supreme Court sided with the developer, and dismissed the proceeding.

But the Appellate Division unanimously reversed, finding that "no reasonable reading of the Administrative Code section 18-118 allows for the conclusion that the legislature in 1961 contemplated, much less gave permission for, a shopping mall, unrelated to the anticipated stadium, to be constructed in the Park."

Most recently, on June 6th this year, the Court of Appeals upheld the Appellate Division: "In sum, the text of the statute and its legislative history flatly refute the proposition that the legislature granted the City the authority to construct a development such as Willets West in Flushing Meadows Park."

This is as if someone pressed a "pause" button on the Willets Point project. The City and the developers are considering their next moves behind closed doors.

Mayor de Blasio could decide not to pursue anything with Queens Development Group, and issue a new Request for Proposals for Willets Point.

Or Queens Development Group could seek permission of the state legislature, to allow constructing the shopping mall on the parkland. There could be community opposition; and, since the legislature typically requires replacement parkland, it's unclear how the developer could satisfy that.

This year, the stalled Willets Point development, and what to do about it, became a topic of candidates during their campaigns.

One of them was the former Councilman, Hiram Monserrate, now a private citizen, who ran again for his former seat. He made Willets Point the focus of his campaign, and excoriated the City for changing the plan against the public interest - giving away 23 acres for one dollar, failing to guarantee the affordable housing, and sacrificing parkland to build a shopping mall.

He lost the primary election to this man: Francisco Moya, a state Assemblyman and self-described "soccer fanatic," who had previously supported building a professional soccer stadium within Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Moya was endorsed by his friend, superstar soccer player David Villa.

David Villa's team is the New York City Football Club, which is partly owned by the New York Yankees. The team plays its home games at Yankee Stadium, but is looking for a site to construct a dedicated soccer stadium. The club has confirmed that it is considering two sites in and around Willets Point as potential locations for a stadium.

Moya is unopposed in the November election. So presumably he will be the City Council representative covering Willets Point. That may increase the possibility that Willets Point becomes the site of a soccer stadium.

Moreover, speaking about Willets Point, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has said, "My first priority would be a soccer stadium there and affordable housing… At the end of the day, I want to see a soccer stadium there."

Meanwhile, just across the Flushing Bay from Willets Point, LaGuardia Airport is being redeveloped with all new terminals and concourses, to accommodate the projected increase in passengers - from thirty million passengers per year now, to 34 million passengers beginning in 2030.

According to the Airport General Manager: "This is going to be the best and only new airport built in the United States in the last twenty years."

Currently, there is no railway access to LaGuardia Airport.

Governor Cuomo is advocating the construction of an AirTrain, to connect LaGuardia Airport with the Willets Point station of the Number 7 subway line of the New York City Transit system, and the Long Island Railroad.

Although the subway station where the AirTrain would terminate is called "Willets Point," it's actually several blocks away from the Willets Point area. So based on what Cuomo and the Port Authority have presented publicly, the AirTrain does not seem to involve the Willets Point property.

However: In February this year, the Port Authority issued a Request for Proposals to design the AirTrain. Buried in that RFP is this: "As part of the redevelopment of LaGuardia Airport, the Authority is considering the expansion of the airport to Willets Point, with the potential to develop a consolidated rental car facility, long-term and/or employee parking, and a hotel." (RFP Attachment A)

The key words there are "expansion of the airport to Willets Point."

You can imagine an AirTrain bringing passengers not just to and from the Number 7 subway line and the Railroad, but also to rental car facilities and parking lots at Willets Point.

When they say "expansion to Willets Point," do they mean the Phase One Willets Point property, which is vacant? Or the Phase Two property, much of which is privately owned? Or all Willets Point property? We don't know. The government hasn't contacted Willets Point property owners regarding expansion of the airport.

But realtors have contacted the property owners. One of them, Cushman & Wakefield, solicited many property owners in the Phase Two area, seeking to represent their properties for sale.

Is Cushman & Wakefield soliciting on behalf of anonymous developers? On behalf of a soccer team that needs land for a stadium? As a proxy for the state, on behalf of LaGuardia Airport? We don't know.

At the moment, Cushman and Wakefield lists two Willets Point properties for sale. One property, 40,300 square feet, is on the market for $17.9 million. The other is 18,468 square feet, asking $16 million.

Finally, what happened to the businesses that used to operate in the Phase One area, but voluntarily left?

A group of 45 of them, called the Sunrise Cooperative, leased a large empty building in the Bronx. Using roughly $6 million in City funds, they hired an architect and contractor to subdivide and customize the interior, intending to open their shops there. By their accounts, the renovations are 95 percent complete. However, last year they ran out of money and declared bankruptcy.

One month ago, they held a press conference to protest their eviction from the Bronx location.

The misfortune of businesses that have voluntarily left Willets Point, is well known to those who have remained - and has strengthened their resolve to stay put, where they are successful, for as long as they can.

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