Willets Point: Where big plans go to die
New York mayors since the 1950s have been crafting dreams for the reclamation of Willets Point, Queens, 62 acres of toxically contaminated land that is home to a ragtag collection of automotive repair shops built on cratered, disintegrating streets.
And for decades those plans have one-by-one faltered and died.
In the early 1960s local business owners hired attorney Mario Cuomo (yes that Mario Cuomo) to squelch municipal plans for turning Willets Point into a giant parking lot for the 1964 World's Fair. Cuomo won. In the '90s, some New Yorkers thought Willets Point might be a great place for a Jets football stadium. That idea was a loser.
The plan calls for a million-square-foot shopping mall on the west side of Citi Field, which would allow developers to pay for a necessary environmental cleanup of Willets Point on the east side of the stadium. The developers, Related Companies and Sterling Equities, would then build 2,500 apartments -- 875 of them affordable -- on Willets Point.
Problem No. 1 came in June, when a state court ruled that the developers couldn't put their mall on the west side of Citi Field because the land they had planned to build on was once part of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. To build on public parkland, the court said, would require Albany to sign off. Oops. Nobody wants to wind up in the Albany funhouse.
Problem No. 2 came Wednesday, when the de Blasio administration declined to join Related and Sterling in appealing that decision. The mayor was disturbed that the developers wouldn't have to build the affordable apartments until 2025. City officials also worried that the deal left open the possibility that no affordable units might materialize.
So what happens now? The city has spent $400 million so far on Willets Point land buys. It can't just walk away from this project. But a Court of Appeals decision on the mall is months off, and even if the court green-lights the Bloomberg plan, it's apparent Mayor de Blasio will want to rewrite some of the terms.
Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald had the best take. Willets Point was part of the enormous Corona dump, which he immortalized 90 years ago in The Great Gatsby as the "valley of ashes," a hellish place of dashed dreams and acrid disappointments.
The city insists there's still a "path forward" with the current project. Maybe. But it sounds as if the valley of ashes is about to claim another fancy high-rolling victim.