New York State Supreme Court Justice Manuel J. Mendez has thrown out a lawsuit that aimed to stop the largest public parkland giveaway in recent NYC history. The lawsuit aimed to stop construction of a mall atop parkland in Flushing Meadows Park, parkland that is worth $1 billion but had been given away by the city to developers for a single dollar.
As Gothamist reported in March, the Bloomberg administration spearheaded a cozy real estate deal with Sterling Equities and Related Companies to build a massive mall on city-owned property. Seth Pinsky, who was the president of the city's Economic Development Corporation at the time the deal was made, told us that the $1 price tag was as high as the market would bear.
A coalition of community groups and local lawmakers challenged the land deal in this most recent lawsuit, arguing that they had been cut out of the process entirely, and that the city neglected laws in pushing through the land giveaway.
As A Walk In The Park explains, "The complaint alleges that the project cannot proceed without approval by the State Legislature under the 'public trust' doctrine that protects all parkland throughout the State against non-park uses without the consent of the Legislature which was not requested or obtained."
The suit also attempted to stop a recent modification to the original giveaway, which detailed the construction of affordable housing in Willets Point. Now the developers will be building a shopping mall and a parking lot there instead.
In his decision, State Supreme Court Justice Manuel J. Mendez agreed with the defendants' argument that the proposed mall doesn't violate the public trust doctrine, because a mall is good for the public and better than a parking lot. "The improvement of trade or commerce resulting from leasing the parkland including use as a shopping mall is part of the development plan for purposes of creating an entire 'special district' and community which ultimately will result in the public benefit of removal of urban blight from Willets Point," Justice Mendez wrote.
In an email to Gothamist, John Low-Beer, an attorney for the plaintiffs, promised to appeal the decision: "Plaintiffs believe that the decision misunderstands the common law doctrine that prohibits any nonpark use of parkland without the specific and explicit approval of the State Legislature. The State Legislature, when it passed the 1961 law permitting the construction of Shea Stadium, did not intend to allow construction of a shopping mall. That law did not allow the construction of anything except a stadium and related facilities on the site. Plaintiffs will appeal, and believe that this decision will be reversed on appeal."
While the project was conceived and approved by Mayor Bloomberg, the de Blasio administration has been quiet on the development, despite their pledge to stop large handouts to wealthy developers.
Update: The developers are very happy with the decision!
A spokesperson for the Queens Development Group writes that, "Today’s decision is a win for Willets Point and all of Queens. The ruling is unequivocal in saying that the project is consistent with state law and rejecting every argument to the contrary. More important, the decision reinforces the support that the City Council and a wide array of community stakeholders have given to this project. It is a significant step forward in the effort to create a new Willets and reverse 100 years of pollution. This $3 billion private investment — the largest investment in Queens' history - will revitalize an area that has been neglected for far too long, and will include the creation of thousands of jobs and affordable housing.”