Francisco Moya is so close to bringing professional soccer to Willets Point

For over a decade, he has led the push to revitalize the “valley of ashes” with sports, housing and more.

New York City Council Member Francisco Moya, in blue suit jacket, wants to bring New York City FC to Queens.

New York City Council Member Francisco Moya, in blue suit jacket, wants to bring New York City FC to Queens. Gerardo Romo/NYC Council Media Unit

Years ago, when the prospect of a professional soccer stadium in Willets Point, Queens, was nothing but a dream, Francisco Moya often imagined himself scoring goals in a roaring arena down the street from where he grew up. Flushing Meadows-Corona Park’s Field 11 was where he often spent time as a kid. Moya and his cousins would race over to the park to play soccer after school whenever they could. On weekends and holidays, it was a family affair. As one of the only Latino families in what was then a largely Italian neighborhood, the game was a chance to connect with their Ecuadorian culture – and one another.

“It was a passion in the house. You talk politics and you talk soccer, right? We avoid everything else,” Moya quipped in a May 12 interview with City & State.

Now an elected representative of Queens since 2011, the game that was central to Moya’s youth is plastered across his district office in Corona. A row of framed FC Barcelona jerseys signed by famous players loom over a long table in the New York City Council member’s conference room. His office has even more soccer memorabilia. The desk is laden with trophies, books and a mug adorned with his name and the FC Barcelona crest – even a miniature foosball table. In the center of the wall hangs a photo of Moya with his arm slung around his father’s back as the two men look out at the Spanish football team’s gleaming home pitch. There’s even a cleat signed by Lionel Messi and a square-shaped patch of grass labeled “la gespa dels campions” – “the turf of champions.” Moya is generous with his collection, frequently showing them to awed neighborhood kids who visit.

The items are a reflection of a council member who has long merged his appreciation of the sport with his work to bring opportunities to people in his district. His love of soccer is well-known among his City Council colleagues, who at times have joked when he misses a meeting at City Hall that he’s probably at a Barcelona match. Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, a self-proclaimed convert to soccer fandom, revealed that he texted Moya questions throughout the recent World Cup whenever he didn’t understand a referee’s call. “He was like my coach,” Richards said laughing.

Whether it’s advocating for more fields to be built at local schools or persuading the City Council to allocate $150,000 toward a soccer program for immigrant children separated from their parents at the border, Moya’s desire to make the sport more accessible has been an undercurrent during his time in the Assembly and City Council. But there’s been one fight in particular that has spanned his 13 years in office – one he said encompasses everything he stands for as both an elected official and a lifetime resident of Corona. That’s bringing a professional soccer stadium to Willets Point in a manner that he said would infuse the surrounding community with affordable housing and economic opportunities. With a deal announced in November, that ball, passed around for a long time, may be about to cross the goal line. Moya is thrilled.

“I believe people will look at this years down the road and see how this city turned things around for a location that’s been abandoned for years,” Moya said.

Home at last

The privately financed $787 million, 25,000-seat soccer stadium, a long-awaited permanent home for the New York City Football Club being planned with Related Companies and Sterling Equities, would be the focal point of a sprawling mixed-use development project in Willets Point that’s expected to transform the industrial waterfront into a new neighborhood. While the anchoring point of the city’s plan is the 2,500 affordable housing units slated to be built in the coming years – the biggest development of entirely affordable housing in 40 years – the project would also include an elementary school, hotel, acres of open spaces and an array of small businesses to a waterfront that had been neglected by the city. The plan hasn’t been universally welcomed since the city announced phase two in November – like any mixed-use development proposal there are some community concerns about displacement mingled with a desire for even more housing – but it has so far been largely received well.

For Moya, the benefits are clear even for people who don’t like soccer. The 2,500 housing units would be “100% affordable” income-restricted, rent-stabilized units, and 220 units would be set aside for seniors. The city anticipates that the entire project will generate about $6 billion in overall “economic impact” and create over 16,000 union jobs in the next three decades. These were components that Moya said have been important to him from the beginning. “For me, it was critical that I would be working with an administration that looked at the project in its totality of what it meant,” he said.

While plans for the stadium and housing won’t be finalized until it goes through the lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ announcement about the deal in November marked a significant point in a saga that has spanned decades. Multiple mayoral administrations have attempted and failed to redevelop Willets Point. It wasn’t until former Mayor Bill de Blasio roped a stronger affordable housing component into discussions that things began moving forward. Plans for the first part of the development, which includes 1,100 affordable housing units, were approved in fall 2022 and progress at the site is underway.

“Council Member Moya has been an invaluable partner at every stage,” a city spokesperson said, calling him “a fierce advocate for his community” who is working with City Hall “to deliver a project that makes Queens and our city fairer, more prosperous, and more affordable for working New Yorkers.”

Moya credits things moving forward to the fact that everyone from the New York City Football Club to the Adams’ administration was committed to building a new neighborhood around the stadium and not letting housing commitments fall by the wayside.

“What has changed dramatically is the alignment and vision of this mayor, Eric Adams, our borough president, Donovan Richards, and Council Member Moya that we need to move forward, and we need to move forward aggressively on a 100% affordable housing plan,” said Andrew Kimball, New York City Economic Development Corp. president and CEO. He described Moya as the “linchpin” in making the deal happen.

‘Guiding light’

Moya’s pursuit of a professional soccer stadium dates back to when he was first elected to the Assembly 13 years ago. Moya and his longtime chief of staff, Meghan Tadio Benham, sat down together and wrote five major things they wanted to accomplish while in office. “The soccer stadium was one of them,” Moya said. In his first term, he sent a letter to the Major League Soccer commissioner pitching his district as the “perfect place” for an expansion team stadium. Though nothing was solidified then, he stuck with it, helping the de Blasio administration start the redevelopment process at Willets Point after entering the City Council. Wanting to get community input before going through the land approval process, Moya and then-Queens Borough President Melinda Katz formed a task force to outline what they wanted in the deal that included housing advocates, community board members, state and city leaders and the Queens Chamber of Commerce.

“We worked really hard in putting together a package that people love, and people will benefit from this. It’s not just my love for the sport, it’s my love for this community,” Moya said.

Richards, who has worked closely on the project since he became borough president, said Moya has been a “guiding light” in ensuring all parties looked at the project not simply from an economic lens, but also a community one, making sure any reimagining of the site would be inclusive of the surrounding immigrant community. He said he anticipates that the project will be a “major economic boon” for the community and that the mere fact that stakeholders didn’t need to have a debate on the importance of making this the biggest affordable housing project since the ’70s was a testament to Moya’s leadership.

“I’m not going to say our relationship has always been perfect. We’ve had ups and downs, but one thing we always have agreed on, and one thing where we find common ground on any day of the week, is making sure that we leave the community better than we found it,” Richards said.

“As the only professional sports team to deliver a major championship trophy to NYC in over a decade, our team and fans are eager to have their permanent home integrated into the local community being created,” said Marty Edelman, New York City Football Club vice chair.

‘Valley of ashes’

Once home to the Brooklyn Ash Removal Co., Willets Point was a dumping ground for mountains of ash throughout the early 1900s. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald drew inspiration from the desolate area in his 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” referencing a “valley of ashes” where cinders “grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens.” The city kicked the Brooklyn Ash Removal Co. out of the area in the early 1930s to pave the way for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The area became known as the Industrial Triangle when various automotive shops and scrap yards began moving there in the late 1920s, according to Queens Historical Society Executive Director Jason Antos. While Willets Point’s industrial footprint gradually shrank alongside the creation of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and Shea Stadium, the conglomeration of auto body shops continued to thrive.

“It’s probably the oldest cluster of auto body shops in the nation because it goes back prior to World War II. The entire area is just very unattached. Even when Citi Field was opened, nothing was really done to revitalize the area,” Antos said.

Many of the largely immigrant auto mechanics and other business owners working in Willets Point have fought against the city’s previous attempts to transform the area, but their numbers have dwindled significantly over the years, having been either evicted or bought out by the city. A city spokesperson said about a dozen remain there today.

Recently, some Corona residents have opposed attempts to redevelop Willets Point and have voiced their frustrations about the city’s plans for the soccer stadium and other components of the deal. Many housing advocates feel that the city’s need for housing far outstrips the necessity of another sports stadium and that while total development would build 2,500 units of affordable housing in Willets Point, the city is still a long way off from meeting the actual demand.

When the Bloomberg administration first floated plans to transform Willets Point into a retail and entertainment district in 2007, the initial proposal had included 5,500 units of mixed-income housing. Though a lawsuit eventually killed the plan, The Black Institute President Bertha Lewis said the city has failed to deliver on what had previously been agreed on.

“Why is it that every time we want to talk about affordable housing – and it’s debatable what that term means – we’ve always had to swallow something,” Lewis said. “Swallow more market rate, swallow a stadium, swallow a casino. Either we are in an affordable housing crisis or we are not. Which is it?”

The city’s plan for the stadium and additional affordable housing units isn’t guaranteed until it goes through the land review process. 

“It’s not all the way baked, although I am supportive in principle of the project. We’ve definitely taken some steps in the right direction, but we want to make sure we’re maximizing the affordability at the lower depths of (the area’s median income) so we are actually incorporating a little bit of everybody from around the surrounding community,” Richards said.

According to Moya, that vote will likely come before the City Council in the first quarter of 2024. Given how much power a council member is traditionally given when it comes to deciding the fate of a development project proposed for their district, it’s likely that the plans will sail through. Still, some tweaks to the number of units or other details might be made.

New York City Council Member Julie Won, who also represents Queens, secured more affordable apartments from developers in last year’s fight over the mixed-use Innovation QNS development. She said a soccer stadium was exactly the kind of legacy she would expect Moya to leave behind in Queens.

“Everyone who knows Moya knows he’s a fútbol fiend. … I hope he will fight to achieve the highest level of affordable housing in Queens history focusing on those making $0 to $36,000 a year for family-sized units,” she said. “If he can get a football stadium and affordable housing, I’m sure many will benefit.”

The stadium deal also has a high-profile opponent in Steve Cohen, the owner of the Mets, who recently proposed building a casino in the area around Citi Field. According to reporting from The City, he’s currently holding off on agreeing to a deal that would allow soccer fans to use the baseball stadium’s parking lot in hopes of leveraging clearance for the casino.

It’s not just the specifics of the deal that have earned Moya some criticisms, but his fixation on it – and the game of soccer in general. Some critics – who declined to speak on the record, to avoid publicly demeaning a colleague – claimed soccer was the only thing he cared about as of late.

It’s true that Moya hasn’t been around City Hall as much this term. While he used to chair the influential Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee, this year he was just given a minor COVID Recovery and Resiliency Subcommittee, after losing to Adrienne Adams in a hard-fought race for City Council speaker at the end of 2021. But it’s not just that he has less responsibility. He has been working remotely due to two herniated discs in his back and is allowed to attend meetings remotely under the “extraordinary circumstances” rule, which includes disability, illness, caregiving responsibilities or any other significant unexpected event.

Moya said he wasn’t concerned about what his colleagues think and that he’s confident matching his legislative record with any of his colleagues any day of the week. He said he has only missed a meeting or a vote on any of his committees for a doctor’s appointment but even that has been rare.

“I know what I do. I wake up every day because I love what I do. I bought the house I grew up in. I represent the neighborhood I grew up in. I’ve been in government for 13 years. I’ve done the things that I’ve always said I wanted to do, and I never lost focus on my responsibility – on anything,” Moya said.

Moya may get a chance to prove he’s got the community’s backing again next month. Longtime political rival Hiram Monserrate, who Moya defeated in 2017, is planning to run against him in the June Democratic primary. Monserrate was initially barred from the ballot due to a city law keeping people like him who were convicted on certain public corruption charges from running, but an appeals court reinstated him. And Monserrate has positioned himself in opposition to the stadium deal, arguing the city needs more housing instead.

The movement begins

There seems to be plenty to celebrate at home though. Moya described the community’s response to the November announcement as a movement. As word has spread about the plans for Willets Point, he said people have often come up to him when he’s out to talk about the stadium. Those interactions haven’t been limited to his district either – recently, while eating at a restaurant, a waiter asked Moya whether he was the guy bringing the soccer stadium to Queens. Moya also said one of the first things students do when he attends school events is pepper him with questions about when the stadium will be completed. “That’s organic, right? You can’t create that on its own. You can't buy that,” he said.

Moya’s district office has even become something akin to an unofficial museum for neighborhood kids. Word of the signed Lionel Messi jersey and other treasures has spread since Moya showed his soccer spoils to a group of boys who stopped by on their way home from school to ask him for a photo. He said parents in turn have been inspired to volunteer at neighborhood cleanups after seeing their children visit the office, which has become “almost like a safe haven after school.”

“To me, that’s the difference you know. You’re leaving a legacy here that is truly going to be something that for generations,” Moya said. “When you can really give these kids hope it makes a difference.”