Policy

Opinion: What to do with Willets?

Whenever my brother and I decide to forgo public transportation and make the pilgrimage from Brooklyn to Citi Field by car to watch our beloved Mets, we find any way possible to avoid paying the ludicrous $22 parking lot fee at the stadium.

We inevitably end up circling around to the industrial badlands that is Willets Point, rumbling over pockmarked streets brimming with sludge and other unidentifiable fluids to find a vaguely suitable parking spot – artfully dodging tow zones and sketchy shuttered storefronts in the process.  

While for the time being we will gladly brave this post-apocalyptic corner of Queens for its free parking, the fact is that more than three years after former Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the site would be transformed into a vibrant commercial sector, Willets Point remains a quixotic, mothballed wasteland ripe for re-imagining.

Unfortunately, all indications are that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen’s myopic focus on affordable housing at Willets Point will take precedence over any other plan to reinvent the project.

Urban planners have spent the better part of the last century trying to avoid undesirable consequences at the expense of bold thinking. The de Blasio administration can change that by taking one of the city’s few parcels of undeveloped open space and charting a different course – using the site to make a strong investment in the city’s future.

The city’s commitment to affordable housing at Willets Point was all but assured after the administration announced in August that they would decline to appeal a court decision blocking the original $3 billion agreement that called for a shopping mall and commercial sector adjacent to Citi Field, with Glen taking issue with the tepid affordable housing commitment the previous administration extracted out of Related and Sterling Equities, the real estate titans who currently own the land.

The problem with committing to affordable housing at this specific site is that by the time the land is remediated and the necessary infrastructure is put in place – an enormous undertaking for an area that lacks even basic sewage and paved roads – housing units that are deemed affordable in 2015 might not be by the time the first residential building begins accepting rental applications.

The city will also no longer have a mall to subsidize any potential affordable housing commitment from Related/Sterling, but even without that component, there are far more imaginative uses of that space.

Several urban planning experts I spoke with said that another mall in a region flush with shopping centers would be superfluous. I also spoke with John Liu, the former city comptroller. Liu and I agreed that the city’s proximity to higher education facilities, including Queens College, Touro College, and the Long Island Business Institute, makes the site a natural fit for a higher education partnership like the Cornell/Technion campus on Roosevelt Island.

“Housing should be a priority, but that’s a big area, over 50 acres, and it wouldn’t seem optimal to use all of the acreage just for housing, affordable and otherwise, because residents need jobs also,” said Liu, who also represented Flushing and Willets Point as a city councilman. “We still have to, as a city, ramp up our education, particularly along the lines of (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).”

The city could build on what downtown Flushing and Corona already have: a thriving network of businesses, and a dire need for jobs for its low-income population. Hundreds of small and large businesses dot these surrounding neighborhoods and serve the local Latino, Chinese and Korean communities. Having an educational incubator in the immediate vicinity could serve as a pipeline to sustaining the commerce in these areas.

“It would actually be a stroke of genius, because the reality is that Flushing has already become a center for higher education,” Liu said.

A development in this vein would also allay the concerns of environmentalists and engineers who have long been argued that any development at Willets Point be self-contained, rather than a tourist or commercial destination that would flood public transportation (namely the No. 7 train, which is at full capacity) and clog the arterial highways.

“The idea would be to build a development in which people can live and work in the same community,” said Brian Ketcham, an engineer who commissioned a traffic impact study on behalf of Willets Point United, a coalition of businesses that fought the Bloomberg plan. “Create what I call ‘urban activity centers,’ places like downtown Flushing where people can live and work within walk distance.”

An academic campus could be cultivated far easier than a tech or manufacturing sector at Willets Point, which would struggle to attract companies to a location that is far flung from the business districts of Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, and Long Island City.

Liu said that Queens College, located in the heart of Flushing, has “plenty of room” for added capacity on the educational and training front. An academic investment in a STEM or business-oriented campus would also go a long way towards expanding the existing talent pool in the city. As recently as last May, the mayor himself has spoken about investing in programs to keep local talent in the city and away from tech havens like Palo Alto or Silicon Valley.

Of course, there are certain immutable facts that may throw a wrench in any future plans at Willets Point, most of which have to do with the exorbitant price tag.  

The city has already spent $400 million on the parcel of land and making improvements to the contaminated site, and that cost would soar if Related and Sterling balk at the administration’s affordable housing demands and ask to be bought out of the agreement – though there are no indications they intend to walk away from Willets Point at this time.

Any change to the Willets Point development would undoubtedly require an enormous additional subsidy, and it stands to reason that the de Blasio administration, like that of his predecessor, would want to commit to a proposal that recoups that kind of public investment.

But in a city where open space is precious, and that also doubles as one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, we should not be in the business of giving away land, no matter how dirty it is. If Related/Sterling is getting land at below market value, Willets Point should be a harbinger of greater community development, rather than simply throwing up more high-rise residential buildings with dubious affordability goals.

NEXT STORY: The Pre-K Peril

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.