Willets Point mall project needs state approval to move forward, court rules

Plans call for a large shopping center and movie theater at former Shea Stadium site

Rending of the mall and residential complex in Willets Point
Rending of the mall and residential complex in Willets Point

UPDATED, 2:24 p.m., June 6: Long-delayed plans for a shopping mall and movie theater on the former Shea Stadium site received another blow on Tuesday when the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the development could not move forward without approval from the state legislature.

The mall and theater have been in the works for years as part of an attempt to develop the blighted 61-acre tract in Flushing-Corona. Queens Development Group, a joint venture between Sterling Equities and Related Companies, proposed a plan in 2011 to develop the land, calling for retail space, a hotel, outdoor space, a public school, and eventually 2,500 units of housing.

The plan specifically called for building a mall with more than 200 stores and restaurants and a movie theater on parkland that currently serves as the parking lot for Citi Field, which replaced Shea Stadium as the home of the New York Mets after its 2008 demolition. The Bloomberg administration approved this plan in 2012.

State Sen. Tony Avella, who represents the 11th District in Queens, then sued the city and Queens Development Group over this proposal, arguing that the plan required legislative approval before it could move forward since it was located on parkland. Although the New York State Supreme Court initially dismissed this case, the Appellate Division reversed this decision, and the New York Court of Appeals upheld the reversal on Tuesday, ruling that the state legislature must authorize the development plans before they can move forward.

“We acknowledge that the remediation of Willets Point is a laudable goal,” the Court of Appeals wrote in its Tuesday ruling. However, the court continued, this has “no place in our consideration of whether the legislature granted authorization for the development of Willets West on land held in the public trust.”

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Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration recently threw its support behind the project, filing court briefs backing the developers’ hopes to move forward without approval from the state legislature. His administration initially criticized the project, stating that it did not emphasize housing strongly enough, given that apartments — 875 of which would be affordable — would not have to be built until mid-2022.

de Blasio spokeswoman Melissa Grace said the administration remained committed to bringing affordable housing to Willets Point.

“This ruling does not alter the city’s ability to move ahead with a dynamic mixed-use project on Willets East,” she said. “We’ll determine the best path forward with stakeholders in the coming weeks.”

Queens Development Group is now evaluating its next steps for the project as well, and a spokesperson said in a statement that the company is “disappointed with the court’s decision, which further delays a project that will reverse 100 years of pollution, create thousands of good-paying jobs and turn vacant lots into a vibrant community.”

In a statement, Avella praised the court’s decision, saying it would establish an important precedent regarding the government’s inability to give away parkland to developers.

“This land was intended to be used as parkland, not for the development of a mega-mall,” he said. “In a city where public land is in short supply, simply handing over parkland would be an absolute disgrace and a betrayal of the public trust.”