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?