The justification for razing a collection of small businesses in Willets Point, Queens, as part of an economic development project a decade in the making was that the land needed to be cleaned of its toxic soil and would better serve as a mixed-use site.
Earlier this year, however, the city and a development team that included the owners of the New York Mets drew up plans to use publicly owned Willets Point property for parking lots that would appear to benefit the Wilpon family's baseball team and an unrelated renovation project at LaGuardia Airport. But the proposal would leave the contaminated ground beneath it untouched, official documents show.
The parking plan was never acted upon, although officials left open the possibility of pursuing it. Doing so would raise questions about the city's priorities for the site, and it would mark a shift in what the land was supposed to be used for when it was rezoned in 2008.
In February, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would go back to the drawing board after the state's Court of Appeals struck down an earlier version of the Willets Point plan that involved building a shopping mall on parkland. The development team—The Related Cos. and Sterling Equities, the real estate arm of the Wilpon family—would build a 1,100-unit affordable-housing complex on 6 acres of city-owned property. A task force of elected officials and community stakeholders would come up with suggestions on what to build on the remaining 17 acres of public land.
"It's time to jump-start Willets Point, and we are doing that by building more than a thousand homes for seniors and families struggling to make ends meet," the mayor said in a statement accompanying the announcement.
But just a month later, the developers notified a state agency overseeing soil remediation at Willets Point that they planned to build parking within the area delegated to the task force, according to documents obtained by Queens filmmaker Robert LoScalzo through a Freedom of Information Law request and provided to Crain's. A roughly 6.5-acre swath of city-owned land would be paved over with three lots housing 665 parking spots and a large open space.
The notification suggested that the lots would be used by Delta Air Lines, which is launching a massive undertaking to replace its terminal at LaGuardia. Finding a place for the airline's contractors to park has been an issue ever since Delta's terminal project was announced.
While Delta said in a public document last year that it had reached an agreement with the Mets to use Citi Field parking to fill the need, paving new lots in Willets Point would serve the same purpose. It would leave parking at the Amazins stadium untouched—a win for the franchise—and would corroborate reports from 2016 that officials were eyeing space in the Iron Triangle to aid the airport's redevelopment.
"It is heartbreaking that hundreds of businesses were ejected from these 23 acres, and yet none of the promised benefits of doing that have come to pass after 10 years," said LoScalzo, who is working on a documentary about Willets Point. "Instead it seems the city has drifted over to other priorities."