A Word from Seth: Willets Point Redevelopment
By Seth Pinsky, President of NYCEDC
I recently wrote about 2011 as a year that will come with challenges, but also offers our City very exciting opportunities. One of the most important of those opportunities can be found at Willets Point in Queens, where we are seeking to build New York City’s next great neighborhood. The 62-acre site is highly contaminated and still lacks basic infrastructure, despite the generations of New Yorkers who have tried to change it.
In 2011, we expect to achieve several milestones on this project. In the spring, after the City issues its official determination and findings under New York’s Eminent Domain Procedure Law, we anticipate that we will release a Request for Proposals seeking a developer for the first phase of the project. This phase will include hundreds of units of housing, 35% of which will be affordable to low- and middle-income New Yorkers, as well as hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space, a brand-new hotel, and two acres of open space. We also anticipate that, by the end of this year, we will begin work on the much-needed infrastructure improvements, which, for the first time in its history, will connect Willets Point to the City’s sanitary sewer and other basic systems. The work on this first phase will create 4,600 construction jobs.
As we move forward with our redevelopment plans, the businesses that are currently operating in Willets Point will need to relocate. The reason for this is that the site can only be properly remediated and lifted out of the flood plain by removing the contaminated soil and bringing in new, clean soil—something that obviously cannot be done with businesses remaining in-place.
The good news is that, because we have been able to reach negotiated settlements with many property owners, the City now controls almost 90% of the property in the first phase, leaving only nine private property owners. But even if we are unable to reach agreements with all landowners, we still must move forward with this project, which is critical to the health and well-being of many in Central Queens, and that was approved by a 47 to 2 margin at the City Council. This is why we recently took the first step in the legal process to exercise the power of eminent domain provided by the City Council when the project was approved—a power that involves a lengthy process overseen by the courts, ensuring fair market value compensation to any impacted property owner. This first step involved a public hearing, which was held in the first week of March. As we have always said, our goal is to use eminent domain only as a last resort. That is why we remain ready, willing and able to speak to any landowner in the Phase 1 area.
In the meantime, it is also important to point out that, just because we are beginning this process, this does not mean that businesses will be asked to move immediately. In fact, our current plan is to contact businesses in the Phase 1 area to discuss relocation in late 2011, with actual relocation not occurring until at least six months after that. Also, businesses that are eventually relocated will be provided with relocation assistance to ensure smooth transitions to other locations.
And, what about businesses outside of the Phase 1 area? Because we are focusing, for now, on the Phase 1 area, we do not believe that those businesses will need to relocate for at least three years. So, these businesses can continue to operate as usual.
One final issue that has been raised in connection with Willets Point is an issue relating to proposed new traffic ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway. This is a highly technical issue, but is nonetheless important. Because our updated analysis shows that the size of the Phase I development does not create any new traffic impacts, we do not expect to build the ramps until the next phase of development. However, we continue to work closely with regulatory agencies and remain confident that we will receive all necessary approvals for these planned ramps in the coming months.
Here’s the bottom line: This is a project that is overwhelmingly supported by the City’s elected officials, arose out of a community planning process, with a first phase that is funded and ready to go, despite today’s challenging fiscal environment. Willets Point remains a top priority, not least because it will create thousands of new jobs and new units of housing, while improving the overall quality of life for local residents. That is why the project has the support of so many local elected officials, including Councilmember Julissa Ferreras, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, Congressman Joe Crowley, State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, and Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn.
We are incredibly excited about the future of Willets Point. Its metamorphosis into a green, mixed-use neighborhood is something that, in the coming years, we will all be able to look at with great pride.