Failed parkland bill raises concerns about officials’ support for little-understood project

Wikimedia Commons/Jim.henderson
Lost Battalion Hall in Rego Park, Queens, which is at the center of a controversial redevelopment project.

Failed parkland bill raises concerns about officials’ support for little-understood project

Failed parkland bill raises concerns about officials’ support for little-understood project
October 13, 2016

Call it the legislative version of Rashomon.

During the last state legislative session, New York City Hall and Queens elected officials promoted a bill at the behest of a developer seeking more design flexibility for a long-delayed mixed-use development near Lost Battalion Hall Park in Rego Park, Queens.

But after the bill failed to advance, the various parties are now offering different explanations of how it played out. Despite initially promoting the legislation – which appeared to relate to an air rights swap – New York City Hall said it pulled its support because it was unsure precisely how the deal would work and how it would benefit park patrons. Queens state Sen. Toby Stavisky said she sponsored the bill but did not promote it because she and the community needed to be briefed on the plans. But Queens Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, who sponsored the measure in the lower chamber, said the project’s developer, Vornado Realty Trust, needed time to finalize its plans.

Some of the confusion seems to stem from how much time passed since Vornado unveiled its project plans in 2005. Back then, the firm announced its intention to construct multiple buildings in phases, with the subject of the legislation – a residential tower above commercial space near the park – slated to be the final step.

In 2011, the city passed a home-rule message asking Albany to approve a parkland swap, where the city would give Vornado a little more than a tenth of an acre of Lost Battalion Hall Park in exchange for the company adding an equal amount of land to the park and making improvements to it. Local officials have said the exchange would benefit the city because it would normalize the borders of what was an irregularly shaped park. The state signed off on the deal in 2011, but construction never began.

During the 2015-16 state legislative session, Aubry said he and Stavisky sponsored legislation to help Vornado implement its most recent plans. Although Aubry had concerns about the project – mostly related to increased traffic –  the assemblyman said he was confident the issues could be addressed with Vornado after Albany passed legislation and in the city’s Uniform Land Use Review process. “They needed air rights in order to put in balconies on the side of the parkland that they were giving back to the city, in exchange for the parkland they took,” he said. “It’s been back and forth. They wanted to go, they didn’t want it to go.”

Meanwhile, Stavisky said she introduced the bill as a courtesy to lobbyist Pat Lynch, but never attempted to advance it out of a legislative committee. “I’ve never met with the owner, the property owner, and I don’t think we should do anything else until we find out from the developer what he has in mind,” she said. “He’s got to come to the community.”

Additionally, the area’s city councilwoman, Karen Koslowitz, and community board district manager did not seem aware of why air rights might be needed for the project. But they said they were confident they would be consulted on any final plan.

Geoffrey Croft, of New York City Parks Advocates, praised politicians for realizing their knowledge of the bill was limited and deciding to scrap it. But, he argued they should not have advanced something they didn’t understand in the first place. “We’ve seen lots of examples, unfortunately, where they didn’t understand it, and they did move forward,” Croft said. “So I guess, if there’s a bright side to this, that would be it.”

Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request indicate New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office worked with Vornado’s lobbyist on the measure, at least briefly. The mayor’s office said the city had not agreed to trade the right to use air and light on its properties. And the administration said it decided it was not sure it thoroughly understood how that would work and how it would benefit New Yorkers.

Neither Vornado nor its lobbyist Michael Woloz responded to questions about what the legislation proposed doing, and whether the change would be needed under current plans.

Croft also raised concerns that City Hall has helped developers on changes to park land so frequently that they have come to expect the city’s assistance. In particular, Croft said he was concerned by a bill description that Woloz emailed City Hall.

“Gabe – want your city and state leg shop to be aware of this bill that just hit the introduction sheets in Albany. It is a straightforward transfer of ownership bill that relates to the Vornado project in Rego Park,” Woloz wrote in an email to Gabriel Schnake-Mahl, who works in the mayor’s intergovernmental affairs department.

“‘Straight forward transfer of ownership bill’ – I mean that language – it just shows how comfortable they were in their ability to get this parkland,” Croft said.

Woloz wrote in an email to City & State that he used the term “straightforward” to explain that the state legislative process was not nearly as complex as the city ULURP process that would follow. He added that it was appropriate for him to reach out to the the mayor’s team about a city-related project.

The de Blasio administration said it was obligated to work with the developer and ensure that its proposal was in New Yorkers’ best interest. “The legislative process includes many voices -- elected officials, community leaders, labor leaders, clergy, industry professionals, etc. -- and the city works closely with them to advance its interests where appropriate. In this case, discussions did not yield a satisfactory result from the city’s perspective,” de Blasio spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein said in a statement. “Should the bill be reintroduced, the city will work with all interested parties to ensure that any agreement reached is in the best interests of the community and the city.”

Sarina Trangle