Boro Board must deny Willets Point to developers

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An open letter to Queens Borough Board members:

The board is responsible for evaluating developer firms’ responses to the city Economic Development Corp.’s request for proposals pertaining to Phase 1 of the proposed Willets Point development and for approving or disapproving a choice of developer, as well as the disposition of Willets Point property to a chosen developer.

Your role in this process is important, because during 2008 the City Council, which ordinarily would have vetted the qualifications of the proposed developer firm and its proposal, ceded its authority to do so with the understanding that the QBB would have the final say in this matter.

The deadline for developer firms to submit responses to the Phase 1 RFP was Sept. 9. Since that time, there has been no public information concerning the status of the evaluations of the RFP responses by any of the entities which the public was told during 2008 would be involved.

When deciding whether or not to approve any Willets Point Phase 1 developer, we submit that the board is obligated to consider the following:

1. The ability of any RFP respondent firm to finance and implement Phase 1 of the proposed Willets Point development. Recent financial difficulties surrounding developer firms, alleged to have submitted proposals pertaining to Phase 1 of the proposed Willets Point development, underscore the need for the QBB to vet the financial capabilities of any developer considered for the Phase 1 site. As part of this due diligence, the board should also subject the EDC to a rigorous review of the costs of remediating and developing this site.

2. RFP respondent firms’ financing of apparently unlawful lobbying by former Borough President Claire Shulman’s local development corporation to influence approval of the proposed Willets Point development. The issue of the alleged unlawful lobbying by Shulman’s LDC is crucial because it is part of an ongoing investigation by the state attorney general’s office. Developer firms that financed the LDC’s alleged unlawful lobbying are also proposing to become the developer of the project that was the subject of that lobbying.

During 2008, then-Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber could not rule out the possibility that developer firms that financed the LDC’s lobbying would be prohibited from participating in the Willets Point RFP. No firm that possibly could be implicated in an unlawful lobbying scheme should be considered an acceptable RFP respondent.

3. The city has quietly reneged on its commitment to include a living wage provision in the RFP. The mandatory inclusion of an agreed living wage provision within the RFP text was the linchpin of labor unions’ support for the proposed Willets Point development and unions’ encouragement of Council approval in 2008, but that living wage provision is not in the RFP. We urge the QBB to reject the EDC’s attempt to circumvent the agreed living wage provision.

4. The proposed Phase 1 fails to accomplish the contiguous remediation of the entire 62-acre Willets Point site, which was said during 2008 to be essential, and involves no new access ramps to and from the Van Wyck Expressway. City officials repeatedly said during the public review that partial remediation and development of the Willets Point site could not occur and was impractical.

Indeed, remediation of the entire site was purportedly so essential that Marshall specified, as a condition of her approval, that “the entire development plan must proceed comprehensively and must not be phased.” Similarly, the Community Board 7 Land Use Committee chairman testified to the City Planning Commission that “the site must be remediated as one complete site. It has to be completely assembled, completely taken over and completely remediated as one site.”

But the proposed Phase 1 would remediate only 12.5 acres of the entire site, leaving nearly 50 unremediated acres purportedly with the potential to recontaminate the remediated property. Phase 1 also has no provision for new Van Wyck Expressway access ramps and the city admits that the adverse traffic impacts of Phase 1 without the ramps may be as severe as those of the entire development with ramps.

The proposed Phase 1 is not a “lesser included” project encompassed by the Council’s 2008 approval. Rather, it is a new project which would deliver all the adverse effects but few of the purported benefits of the original proposed project. The liability/benefit ratio of Phase 1 is removed from that of the original proposed project. To the extent that the board’s evaluation is intended to be a final safeguard against inappropriate development, it is incumbent upon the QBB to not grant any approval pertaining to Phase 1.

We also wish to ensure that you are aware that Barry Grodenchik, now employed at Queens Borough Hall as deputy borough president, is the former lobbyist employee of The Parkside Group, which lobbied in favor of the proposed Willets Point development on behalf of Shulman’s LDC and its developer members.

To the best of our knowledge, Grodenchik has neither recused himself from involvement with the board’s evaluation of prospective Phase 1 developers and Willets Point property disposition, nor sought any conflict-of-interest ruling — although we believe Grodenchik should have done so.

Finally, the city is attempting to exercise eminent domain to forcibly acquire privately owned property to facilitate the proposed Phase 1. Forty-four states other than New York have enacted their own legislation to prohibit or curtail the use of eminent domain for such purposes.

Thus, the proposed Phase 1 project that requires the approval of the board not only fails to realize benefits that were intended by the Council, but relies upon eminent domain abuse that violates basic constitutional rights and is contrary to public sentiment throughout this country.

Nothing obligates you to go along with this, and we ask that you refrain from doing so.

Gerald Antonacci

Willets Point United


Posted 5:03 pm, April 4, 2012
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