Opinion: What to do with Willets?

Opinion: What to do with Willets?

Opinion: What to do with Willets?
September 15, 2015

Whenever my brother and I decide to forgo public transportation and make the pilgrimage from Brooklyn to Citi Field by car to watch our beloved Mets, we find any way possible to avoid paying the ludicrous $22 parking lot fee at the stadium.

We inevitably end up circling around to the industrial badlands that is Willets Point, rumbling over pockmarked streets brimming with sludge and other unidentifiable fluids to find a vaguely suitable parking spot – artfully dodging tow zones and sketchy shuttered storefronts in the process.  

While for the time being we will gladly brave this post-apocalyptic corner of Queens for its free parking, the fact is that more than three years after former Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the site would be transformed into a vibrant commercial sector, Willets Point remains a quixotic, mothballed wasteland ripe for re-imagining.

Unfortunately, all indications are that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen’s myopic focus on affordable housing at Willets Point will take precedence over any other plan to reinvent the project.

Urban planners have spent the better part of the last century trying to avoid undesirable consequences at the expense of bold thinking. The de Blasio administration can change that by taking one of the city’s few parcels of undeveloped open space and charting a different course – using the site to make a strong investment in the city’s future.

The city’s commitment to affordable housing at Willets Point was all but assured after the administration announced in August that they would decline to appeal a court decision blocking the original $3 billion agreement that called for a shopping mall and commercial sector adjacent to Citi Field, with Glen taking issue with the tepid affordable housing commitment the previous administration extracted out of Related and Sterling Equities, the real estate titans who currently own the land.

The problem with committing to affordable housing at this specific site is that by the time the land is remediated and the necessary infrastructure is put in place – an enormous undertaking for an area that lacks even basic sewage and paved roads – housing units that are deemed affordable in 2015 might not be by the time the first residential building begins accepting rental applications.

The city will also no longer have a mall to subsidize any potential affordable housing commitment from Related/Sterling, but even without that component, there are far more imaginative uses of that space.

Several urban planning experts I spoke with said that another mall in a region flush with shopping centers would be superfluous. I also spoke with John Liu, the former city comptroller. Liu and I agreed that the city’s proximity to higher education facilities, including Queens College, Touro College, and the Long Island Business Institute, makes the site a natural fit for a higher education partnership like the Cornell/Technion campus on Roosevelt Island.

“Housing should be a priority, but that’s a big area, over 50 acres, and it wouldn’t seem optimal to use all of the acreage just for housing, affordable and otherwise, because residents need jobs also,” said Liu, who also represented Flushing and Willets Point as a city councilman. “We still have to, as a city, ramp up our education, particularly along the lines of (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).”

The city could build on what downtown Flushing and Corona already have: a thriving network of businesses, and a dire need for jobs for its low-income population. Hundreds of small and large businesses dot these surrounding neighborhoods and serve the local Latino, Chinese and Korean communities. Having an educational incubator in the immediate vicinity could serve as a pipeline to sustaining the commerce in these areas.

“It would actually be a stroke of genius, because the reality is that Flushing has already become a center for higher education,” Liu said.

A development in this vein would also allay the concerns of environmentalists and engineers who have long been argued that any development at Willets Point be self-contained, rather than a tourist or commercial destination that would flood public transportation (namely the No. 7 train, which is at full capacity) and clog the arterial highways.

“The idea would be to build a development in which people can live and work in the same community,” said Brian Ketcham, an engineer who commissioned a traffic impact study on behalf of Willets Point United, a coalition of businesses that fought the Bloomberg plan. “Create what I call ‘urban activity centers,’ places like downtown Flushing where people can live and work within walk distance.”

An academic campus could be cultivated far easier than a tech or manufacturing sector at Willets Point, which would struggle to attract companies to a location that is far flung from the business districts of Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, and Long Island City.

Liu said that Queens College, located in the heart of Flushing, has “plenty of room” for added capacity on the educational and training front. An academic investment in a STEM or business-oriented campus would also go a long way towards expanding the existing talent pool in the city. As recently as last May, the mayor himself has spoken about investing in programs to keep local talent in the city and away from tech havens like Palo Alto or Silicon Valley.

Of course, there are certain immutable facts that may throw a wrench in any future plans at Willets Point, most of which have to do with the exorbitant price tag.  

The city has already spent $400 million on the parcel of land and making improvements to the contaminated site, and that cost would soar if Related and Sterling balk at the administration’s affordable housing demands and ask to be bought out of the agreement – though there are no indications they intend to walk away from Willets Point at this time.

Any change to the Willets Point development would undoubtedly require an enormous additional subsidy, and it stands to reason that the de Blasio administration, like that of his predecessor, would want to commit to a proposal that recoups that kind of public investment.

But in a city where open space is precious, and that also doubles as one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, we should not be in the business of giving away land, no matter how dirty it is. If Related/Sterling is getting land at below market value, Willets Point should be a harbinger of greater community development, rather than simply throwing up more high-rise residential buildings with dubious affordability goals.

Nick Powell