On June 30, Community Board 7 voted 21 in favor and 15 against the city proposal to take over Willets Point and sell it to a developer to build 5,500 housing units, an 850-seat school, a convention center, a hotel and several retail stores. The city made a good case showing their PowerPoint slide show of what their proposed development plan was all about. A sticking point for most of those voting "No" that night was the city’s use of eminent domain to seize properties. It was individual rights verses the city’s rights. Individual rights lost that night.
The use of eminent domain in the famous Kelo case that made it to the Supreme Court sent shock waves to private property owners nationwide. In Kelo, the city of New London, Connecticut was having dire financial troubles so they thought that taking over the dilapidated Trumbull waterfront area and selling it to a developer to build a mixed-use waterfront would be the answer. Pfizer was building a research facility nearby and it was thought this plan would improve the area. The city purchased 100 or 115 lots from willing sellers on this 90-acre site, but 15 chose not to sell. Nine property owners became the petitioners in this case; Susette Kelo being the lead plaintiff. The city’s development corporation acted to condemn the 15-holdout properties, so they could use eminent domain to seize them.
The case was decided on June 23, 2005, and Kelo lost in a 5-4 decision. Public opinion polls online found that 93 percent disagreed with the ruling. New London residents formed a political party, and gained two seats in the City Council to try to rectify the Trumbull takings. The dissenters across the country included the AARP, NAACP, the Libertarian Party, and the Institute for Justice. The ruling shocked most of Congress. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced legislation to protect homes and businesses from such action. By July of 2007, 42 states had enacted some sort of reform legislation that was a direct result of the Kelo decision.
So what’s the new development in Trumbull like today? There is no development. Kelo raised some money and has just moved her entire house to another location. The selected developer is having financial problems, and is considered in default. The area sits.
The Willets Point case is our Kelo case. The city doesn’t own one inch of Willets Point and only has commitments from two owners. However, there is a hardcore element of owners that don’t want to sell. The city neglected Willets Point for over 50 years, by not giving them the infrastructure they deserved like lights, sewers and good paved streets. Now they want to take it over because the area is “blighted.” The word blighted is a conditional word used by the city so they can condemn those properties and proceed with eminent domain.
What became crystal clear at the C.B. 7 meeting that night was that the city does not need a majority number of sellers before they can proceed with condemnation and eminent domain. They don’t need 75 percent, 51 percent, or even 5 percent. They can just take the owners in a room one at a time and make them an offer they can’t refuse.
Some areas in our city are just meant to be manufacturing areas. Willets Point is one of them. This area, by design, is meant to be a low traffic and low-use area. Changing the zoning to a mixed-use zone won’t solve the problems there. Willets Point is an isolated area, restricted by Northern Boulevard, the Grand Central Parkway, Roosevelt Avenue and College Point Boulevard. A new ramp proposed by the city on the Van Wyck is not going to solve the traffic congestion there. It never will. The whole area has to be drastically reconfigured, if it can be.
Downtown Flushing is already overstressed without Willets Point. The new Muss development nearby will consist of 6 towers, and 1,400 apartments. They will exit on College Point Boulevard. Numerous other as-of-right buildings are being constructed all over Flushing right now. Drive down there one night and take a look.
The No. 7 subway line, according to the MTA, is at maximum capacity. The LIRR is near capacity during peak hours. A new bus line or two will provide very little relief forthis area. In addition, huge numbers of cars clog the area on ballgame nights, or when the National Tennis Center is in use. They all use the same access roads.
Forced relocation of businesses rarely work. It is questionable whether many of those 250 businesses and 1,300 workers would survive the relocation shakeup. Those businesses have managed to survive there in spite of the fact that the city collected their tax dollars and then neglected them for 50 years. Maybe some are tough enough to make the transition.
The community board is only advisory. The Borough President will most likely rubber stamp the project. Thirty New York City Council members say this is a flawed plan. A lawsuit filed by the owners of businesses in Willets Point is also hitting court dates. The fight is far from being over.
Tyler Cassell, member
Community Board 7 - Flushing