Photo by Joe Anuta
By Joe Anuta

A Community Board 7 committee switched its vote at the 11th hour Monday to approve the $3 billion Willets Point redevelopment project, hours before the full board followed suit.

CB 7 gave the green light to the controversial proposal by a vote of 22-18 — nine members were either absent or left early — though the approval came with a list of conditions and commitments from the city and the developers.

“We want to go on record with what we want,” CB 7 Vice Chairman Chuck Apelian said to the board, indicating that they wanted the city to set aside money for ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway and make traffic improvements before opening the first part of the development.

The Queens Development Group, consisting of Related Cos. and Sterling Equities, the real estate arm of the New York Mets, was selected to carry out a portion of the city’s 2008 redevelopment plan to clean up toxic soil within 23 acres of the Iron Triangle. The group will then be able to build a new, mixed-use neighborhood on the site.

Had the developers stuck to that plan, no further approvals would have been necessary for them to break ground.

But the joint venture decided to construct a 1.4-million-square-foot mall to the west of Citi Field on parkland leased to the Mets, in what land use lawyers for the group characterized as an essential component in making the project economically viable.

“What you won’t hear from anyone here tonight with development experience is another plan to clean up Willets Point,” lawyer Ethan Goodman told the board. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The city Economic Development Corp., which is facilitating the development of the project, lauded the decision in a statement.

“This community board vote is an important step towards transforming Willets Point and building a new mixed-income neighborhood that will create thousands of jobs and billions in investment,” said EDC Executive Director Kyle Kimball.

The joint venture’s proposal now moves to the borough president’s office before landing at the Department of City Planning and then the City Council for a vote.

But Benjamin Haber, a Queens activist opposed to the plan, called Goodman’s presentation a “Hollywood script” and urged the board to strike down the proposal and ward off untold traffic horrors and avoid building a mall on parkland.

The board’s Land Use Committee had initially voted down a motion to approve the proposal May 8 by a vote of 7-2. But sometime afterward, Apelian had discussions with the developers and city.

As a result of those discussions, the committee received a list of written commitments Monday from the joint venture and Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Steel when members reconvened an hour before the full board meeting.

The committee quickly hammered out a new motion, with Apelian and CB 7 Chairman Gene Kelty hashing out amendments with a representative of the city seated a few feet away.

Several board members, including Kelty and Apelian, switched their votes from a no to a yes, and after the regular board meeting was scheduled to begin, and with a roomful of people standing behind them, the motion passed 10-6 with conditions.

Several speakers at the meeting pointed to the city’s unfulfilled commitments from 2008, namely that CB 7 was not included in the process to select a developer for Willets Point. They also questioned why the committee changed its vote after private discussions with the developers.

But Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said lobbyists or heads of projects meet all the time with members of government on all levels to try and push a project forward.

“You may not like it, but I don’t think this at all unusual,” he said.

And if the committee or any legislative body learns new information, Freeman said changing their position is not always a bad thing.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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