Willets Point, the warren of auto-repair shops that for generations sat on a muddy peninsula between the Mets' ballpark and Flushing Creek, has been targeted for an overhaul ever since "the Mets' ballpark" still meant Shea Stadium.
When the Bloomberg administration first marked it for redevelopment way back in 2007, initial plans were for 5,500 units of mixed-income housing, half a million square feet of office space, a 700-room hotel, and a two-acre park. In 2012, plans emerged for a new shopping mall on the former Shea Stadium site now being used as a Mets parking lot, and part of Willets Point became slated for temporary baseball parking. When the mall was shot down by a 2015 court ruling, Mayor de Blasio created the Willets Point Task Force comprised of a mysterious group of appointees (more on that later) to start over at square one. Meanwhile, after a separate court battle, most of the chop shops were displaced to Hunts Point in the Bronx, where they soon faltered and died, with some of their operators returning to seek employment at the few remaining businesses left alongside the puddle-strewn wasteland where they once operated their own shops.
Recently, though, Queens borough president Melinda Katz — one of the two task force co-chairs — has begun stepping up talk of what could be the least likely endgame of all for Willets Point: a professional soccer stadium that would take up as much as 17 acres of the redevelopment site, to be built with uncertain funds, for a minor-league soccer team called Queensboro F.C. that does not, strictly speaking, exist.
"Just imagine if we, the World’s Borough, hosted the World Cup," instructed Katz in her 2017 State of the Borough speech, a sentiment she reiterated in an interview with Crain's last March. Then, in October, her office issued a press release on a meeting where Katz, task force co-chair Councilmember Francisco Moya, and then-NYC F.C. star David Villa discussed "a proposal to build a 10,000 to 25,000-seat soccer stadium in the Willets Point redevelopment area that would serve as home for the Queensboro Football Club, a proposed new team that would play in the United Soccer League, a second division professional league."
It was not a popular suggestion with the Queens community groups that have been pushing for a full build-out of the original plans for 5,500 units of housing. And it's reignited a full-on battle royale over the fate of one of the city's last major plots of vacant land, pitting Katz and her allies against a coalition of grassroots groups and local pols who say they’ve been shut out of the process.
“The city spent approximately $200 million in acquiring these properties. I don't think they did that to build a soccer stadium,” says Hiram Monserrate, the disgraced former state senator turned district leader who is affiliated with the new coalition Nos Quedamos Queens. (Nos Quedamos Queens, in turn, is unaffiliated with the older Bronx group Nos Quedamos, best known for its successful advocacy for the Melrose Commons project, by all accounts the most effective project in city history at constructing affordable housing without displacing existing residents.) “I'm a soccer fan. But you can't build a sports coliseum at the expense of meeting the needs of the people, and the people need housing.”
Normally, borough presidents like Katz aren’t at the center of local redevelopment plans, but then, nothing about Willets Point has exactly gone normally.
In 2012, the NYC Economic Development Corporation, the quasi-public agency that the city handed control of Willets Point over to in 2008, chose the Queens Development Group [QDG] — made up of Hudson Yards megadevelopers the Related Companies and the Wilpon family, owners of the Mets — as the winning bidder for the Willets Point redevelopment. This was largely on the strength of its plan to incorporate a shopping mall on the city-owned site that the Wilpons had a 99-year lease on as part of the deal for the construction of Citi Field.
"They said the way we can make this economically viable is you let us build the shopping mall," says John Low-Beer, a City Club attorney who brought the lawsuit against Willets West on behalf of several good-government and parks groups and then-state senator Tony Avella. "And when it's finished, somehow — in some unspecified way, because the agreement reached with the city did not say that any of the profits from Willets West would go towards subsidizing the redevelopment of Willets Point — then we'll do Willets Point proper."
The suit eventually ended up torpedoing the mall plan, when the Citi Field parking lot turned out to legally still be city parkland, and so off-limits to development without state legislative action. At that point, de Blasio, who had inherited the Willets Point mess from his predecessor, declared that he wouldn't join QDG in appealing the ruling. (The city eventually did join the developers in an appeal, and lost.) Instead, the mayor appointed a task force to elicit community input on what should be done with the site, then submit new plans to the Economic Development Corporation [EDC].
That, according to the plan’s critics, is not quite how things worked out.
The task force met four times in 2018, Monserrate says he heard from a task force member who spoke at a recent Community Board 7 meeting, and came up with several recommendations, including both mixed-use housing and a soccer stadium. "But there was never a vote of the task force, so you really can't tell if that was the will of the majority of the task force members or not," he says. "Secondly, we requested attendance sheets, and they claimed they didn't have any."
In fact, it's even a mystery how many people are on the task force or who they are. Queries to Katz, Moya, and EDC went unanswered, leaving only a single Powerpoint slide from an EDC presentation showing attendance at June's closed-door task force meeting — a list that included several local elected officials, members of three local community boards, and a few community and business groups — as the Nessie photo of the enterprise:
The opposition is made up of community groups that have been excluded from the task force process: Nos Quedamos Queens includes, among others, the Jackson Heights group Padres en Accion/Parents in Action, former ACORN leader (and Atlantic Yards proponent) Bertha Lewis's Black Institute, and the anti-homeless-shelter group East Elmhurst Corona Alliance, which has included Monserrate as a member since its founding in 2016.
By that point, the former city councilmember and state senator had been booted from the legislature following a misdemeanor assault conviction for a fight that allegedly involvedslashing his then-girlfriend with a broken drinking glass, then served 21 months in federal prison for directing city money to a nonprofit that he then used to support his state senate campaign.
Monserrate, who in September was elected to a position as a Queens Democratic district leader, insists that he's only joined this battle because it's the right thing to do, not for personal aggrandizement. “I was in government for a long time, I had a fall from grace," he says. "This is something that I really am passionate about, because the people were defrauded."
Also unclear is how much city money has already been spent on the Willets Point project, and how much would still be needed to prepare the site, which lacks basic infrastructure like sidewalks, streetlights, or sewers, needs to be raised to prevent flooding from Flushing Creek, and requires toxic waste cleanup after years of auto servicing on the land. The Times' Charles Bagli reported last year that the city has already put $287 million into land acquisition, cleanup, and relocation costs.
Currently, QDG has committed only to building 1,100 affordable units on the southernmost six acres of the 23-acre "Phase 1" site, implying that it needed the cash from the now-stymied mall project to fund any more. (Asked if this was the case, QDG spokesperson Sam Spokony replied only that "We are continuing to work with EDC to bring the revitalization of Willets Point to fruition and transform a long-contaminated site and vacant lots into a vibrant community.") Phase 1 is roughly contiguous with the land cleared of businesses so far; the six-acre sub-site is a single diagonal plot closest to the Mets-Willets Point station on the 7 line.
The stadium squabble has even filtered into next year's race for Queens D.A., which features a crowded field that includes both Katz and city councilmember Rory Lancman, who vocally opposed building a soccer stadium when it was proposed for Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
(Nos Quedamos Queens had issued a whole side complaint about two acres of land that the city had agreed to sell to QDG for one dollar, and which faced a December 20th deadline for the city to withdraw the offer; the deadline turned out to have secretly been extended until January 31st, though, and EDC has promised it will be reclaiming the land, so everyone can ignore this, at least for another few weeks.)
As for Queensboro F.C., evidence of its existence is mostly limited to that Katz press release from October. Someone has registered a domain name and a trademark and launched a Twitter presence, and while all of that could be the work of squatters, it could be semi-serious as well: With expansion fees in the second-tier USL running a relatively piddly $7 million (MLS teams go for 20 times that), it's entirely possible that someone would bite at a chance to land a New York pro sports franchise at a bargain price. Though taking on the cost of building a stadium, which would run upwards of $50 million, would be another story. And that's if Related and the Wilpons — who briefly toyed with the idea of launching an MLS team before plans for a stadium in nearby Flushing Meadows-Corona Park crashed and burned — are even interested in dedicating nearly half of the Willets Point site to an expensive soccer bauble that will sit empty all but 17 games a year.
We'll know more once the Willets Point task force makes its report — if it hasn't already without telling anyone, that is. Katz's office did not respond to several queries about its plans for the site; Moya spokesperson Ryan Sit says that "EDC is mulling over several elements that the task force has discussed," and referred all further questions to that agency.
EDC, meanwhile, declined to comment for the record, but did indicate that it was still awaiting final recommendations from the task force, at which point it would sit down with QDG to make a final determination. And QDG spokesperson Sam Spokony likewise said that the developers are still "awaiting the recommendations of the Willets Point Task Force."
Reading tea leaves, since Katz and Moya appear to be the only ones stumping for a stadium, and there's no funding plan for one regardless, its future has to be considered uncertain at best. But then, so is the fate of any affordable housing at the site, more than a decade after the city first announced that it would be clearing Willets Point of its businesses to build a mixed-use complex.
"I never really understood why they don't have to send it out for bids again in any event, and do the whole thing over," says Low-Beer. "I've always thought that the right thing for the city to do would have been to put in infrastructure and let those businesses stay."
[UPDATE // 3:28 p.m.] An EDC spokesperson sent Gothamist the following statement:
We have been working closely with the Willets Point Task Force over the past six months and have discussed a variety of potential scenarios. Throughout this process, and as recently as September, two of those scenarios have been shared with the joint venture to inform their future proposal for Phase 1B. We are committed to continuing our collaboration with the community to determine the best path to activate this underutilized area.