Monday, January 5, 2015

Willets ramps need “Re-evaluation”

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) have determined that changes to the proposed Willets Point development – including the recent addition of a 1.4 million square foot “Willets West” mega-mall on parkland, and the expansion of the total size of the project from 62 acres to 108.9 acres – may require a “Re-evaluation” of the Environmental Assessment prepared in 2011 by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) in support of new access ramps to and from the Van Wyck Expressway to enable the project. Such a re-evaluation by the FHWA and NYSDOT could necessitate the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement, and spur new legal challenges by project opponents who have always called the ramps the project’s Achilles heel.

For its part, NYCEDC has long asserted that new Van Wyck access ramps are necessary precursors to the full development of the 62 acre Willets Point site – including the 5,000+ units of housing that were touted as the project’s linchpin. But other expert analyses have shown that the proposed new ramps can never adequately address the very severe traffic congestion that a developed Willets Point will impose on the Van Wyck Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway and other nearby highways and local roads.

Back in 2010, the New York Times exposed state officials’ “frustration with the city’s inability to provide reliable information and the pressure it was placing on them to expedite their analysis” of the proposed Van Wyck ramps.

In 2011, NYCEDC submitted a draft Environmental Assessment for the ramps to NYSDOT and FHWA. A very contentious public hearing was held, at which numerous Queens civic associations expressed opposition to the ramps and the questionable traffic analyses, and called for an independent expert review of the future traffic impacts. However, NYSDOT and FHWA arranged no such review.

Instead, in early 2012, NYSDOT and FHWA affirmed the Environmental Assessment, which then became the basis of a “Finding Of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) issued by the FHWA, concluding that constructing the Van Wyck ramps will have “no significant effect on the human environment.” Issuing the FONSI means that no Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will ever be prepared for the proposed ramps.

But the Environmental Assessment and the FONSI are based upon analyses of traffic associated with the 62 acre Willets Point development that NYCEDC had promoted up until mid-2012. Just weeks after the FHWA issued the FONSI, then-Mayor Bloomberg announced the expansion of the Willets Point project to include a 1.4 million square foot “Willets West” mega-mall on parkland located west of Citi Field stadium. Adding the mega-mall nearly doubles the total size of the project from 62 acres as originally promoted, to 108.9 acres as NYCEDC now intends. It also increases the total amount of retail space at the site from 1,700,000 square feet, to 2,650,000 square feet. NYSDOT and FHWA never considered the traffic impacts of any such mega-mall, when evaluating the proposed Van Wyck ramps which enable the development.

When Mayor Bloomberg announced the vastly expanded project, Willets Point United, a coalition of area property and business owners, wrote to the FHWA:
“FHWA’s approval of the Van Wyck ramps and the FONSI is explicitly based on an Environmental Assessment for the prior project. That approval and FONSI, and the Environmental Assessment on which they are based, are no longer applicable because they were for a different project than is now being planned, and they should be withdrawn. The FHWA must do a new environmental review for the same reasons that the City is now doing a supplemental EIS.”
FHWA and NYSDOT emails recently obtained by documentary video producer Robert LoScalzo show that beginning in late 2012, NYSDOT required that NYCEDC explain the ways in which the revised Willets Point development (including the “Willets West” mega-mall) differs from the development as originally proposed and that was the basis of the ramps’ Environmental Assessment and FONSI. NYCEDC responded by directing NYSDOT to the project’s full Supplemental EIS, and later by providing a four page “Summary of changes in the Willets Point Development Plan and the Willets Point FSEIS.” The FHWA then requested that NYCEDC “prepare a table illustrating the current changes to the Willets Point Development Plan Project versus what was approved in the March 2012 NEPA Environmental Assessment,” and NYCEDC provided such a table on September 23, 2014.

A week later, on September 30, 2014, Uchenna Madu, NYSDOT Director of Planning and Project Development, wrote to Thomas McKnight, NYCEDC Executive Vice President:
“We have reviewed the summary of changes to the Willets Point Development Plan SEIS compared to the March 2012 EA FONSI issued by the FHWA. Our initial assessment is that a Re-evaluation of the 2012 Environmental Assessment would be required. We will follow up with you for an in-person meeting in the coming week with FHWA staff, NYSDOT and if you wish to bring in your Environmental Consultants (I believe AKRF).”

All of this begs the questions:
  • If the FHWA and NYSDOT are “Re-evaluating” the Environmental Assessment because its data is no longer accurate due to the project’s expansion, has the FONSI issued in 2012 been rescinded? 
  • Will the FHWA and NYSDOT finally require a full Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Van Wyck ramps? 
  • And, are the ramps now considered unapproved – meaning there is no clear path at the moment to develop all of Willets Point?


Anonymous said...

One thing is sure: the developers and Big $Bucks will always win out.

Anonymous said...

You can say that again so much graft with these developers and pols it's crazy ..isn't anyone watching these crooks..we'll deblasio is looking at the cops backs and trying to figure how he can hide his loot from the Wilpon haul...

Anonymous said...

these ramps will never get built ,

Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting to see Claire Shulman in an orange prison jumpsuit!!!

Anonymous said...

No one has mentioned the effect of this real estate project on the adjoining Queens neighborhoods.

I'm sure the Wilpon's will prevail upon the FAA to alter the air routes that go over the tennis center, the new co-ops, condos, mall and Wilpon owned ball park.

This means a large part of Flushing will be under attack by exploding decibels from low flying jets all to make stolen park property and adjoining sports facilities worth more to their owners.

ron s said...

What ever happened to the decision about whether a mall was an allowable construction on the restricted parkland?

Queens Crapper said...

That suit was dismissed and is being appealed.

Anonymous said...

"Whatever happened..."

I thought the same and came up with the idea of reverse Eminent Domain.

If the government can take land away from a citizen for the good of the populous, why can't the populous sue to have government land taken away for a better use and to return it to the tax roll?

Imagine how much money the city could garner from the sale of Central Park or Prospect Park? Imaging how much money would be restored to the tax rolls?

It boggles the imagination.

Anonymous said...

The inscrutable Wellington Chen is absent from view these days. He has definitely got a piece of the scurrilous Willets Point action. Maybe he and Shulman can share a jail cell one day.