Mayor Michael Bloomberg stumped before the Queens Chamber of Commerce two years ago flanked by real estate giants Related Companies and Sterling Equities. The pair, he announced, had gotten the green light to redevelop Willets Point, not too far away.
Two years later, the joint venture, known as the Queens Development Group, has survived legal battles and some of the toughest community pushback in recent history.
The Queens Development Group has cemented itself as one of the most resonating groups in the city. The decade-long undertaking is due to finish up the first phase this time a year from now. Despite legal challenges, the pair of companies is using its real estate clout to undertake the courageous effort of building a new neighborhood in the city.
“The redevelopment of Willets Point is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will turn a blighted landscape into New York City’s next great neighborhood,” said a spokesperson for the duo. “Throughout the public review process, our plan for Willets Point enjoyed broad community support and backing from the City Council and other agencies. We look forward to the start of construction and a brighter future for Willets Point and the surrounding area.”
The pair is trying to do what no one has been able to for 50 years: raze a sea of auto shops and redevelop the Iron Triangle. The venture has to install new infrastructure for the first time in the patch of land. Soil under the 23-acre property will have to be entirely replaced because oil and other auto chemicals have contaminated the earth.
The entire construction will cost $3 billion in private investment fronted by Related and Sterling.
It is a daunting task that required a lot of firepower. But because of the vast real estate network between the two firms, it brought in top guns. Lawyers Jesse Masyr and Ethan Goodman were the main lobbyists to the community on the project and lead it through the uniform land use review process, or ULURP.
“It’s a difficult site,” Masyr said when the land use process began in 2012. “In the complication in doing the project that isolated, contaminated.”
Both companies’ track record shows the venture is up for the project, which isn’t slated to finish until 2025. Related, which has become an international development company, is already developing the Hudson Yards. The site was once potentially home to a stadium for the New York Yankees or New York Jets, but will now become a small neighborhood built on a platform.
Sterling, founded by Mets co-owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz in 1972, has become a powerhouse in its own right. The company already had ties in the area after Wilpon bought the Mets in the 1980s. Most of this development will complement the owners’ upgraded ballpark, CitiField, including recreational facilities to the east of the stadium.
Thanks to the clout each carries, the projects viability is secured to go through without funding concerns, such as the stalled Xanadu center next to the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
“We have a little bit of a better track record in that regard,” Masyr said in terms of the venture’s economic vitality.
Their goal is to essentially build a new neighborhood that will bridge the gap between Flushing and Corona. That includes 2,500 housing units, with 35 percent of those dedicated to affordable housing. There will also be 200 stores to serve that community, along with a 1 million-square-foot shopping mall on the opposite side of the stadium. The plans is to have most of those 200 stores be served by local businesses already in the community, according to Related Retail President Glenn Goldstein.
Queens Development Group officials expect for this work to really pay off. The development will create 12,000 union construction jobs during the ten years of work – spread out in five phases. In all, the end result will generate $50 million in tax revenue annually, officials said.
People opposed to the project tried to block it passing the land use project, and have brought several lawsuits over removing parkland. They blamed the duo for destroying small business and threatening Flushing Meadows Corona Park. And Willets West, the shopping mall, was nearly killed because the footprint is technically parkland. But the developers prevailed because of a 1961 loophole, which had allowed Shea Stadium to be built on the site.
Instead, opponents said, construction on what is believed to be parkland should have to be approved by the state legislature, as with any similar development.
“Their argument is that ‘Yeah, it’s parkland but we have permission to develop it for any economic reason,’” said Michael Rikon, a lawyer who represents many of the small auto shops at Willets Point. “And they don’t.”