New York City has approved a development plan for Willets Point after the demolition of Shea Stadium.
New York City has approved a development plan for Willets Point after the demolition of Shea Stadium. (Rick Maiman/Polaris)

The doctrine that imposes restrictions on using public lands for private purposes does not apply to a shopping mall-anchored development planned for the site where Shea Stadium once sat in Flushing, Queens, a judge has decided.

Supreme Court Justice Manuel Mendez (See Profile) dismissed claims brought by opponents of the Willets Point West project that the city’s approval of the development plan—with $65 million allocated for road repair and new ramps to the Van Wyck Expressway—violates the public trust doctrine.

Mendez ruled that the question was settled in 1961 with the adoption of New York City Administrative Code §18-118, which authorized a stadium for the then-new Mets franchise in Flushing Meadow Park. The law also authorized other uses of the park property, including those “for the improvement of trade and commerce” and to remove urban blight.

The judge said that law, although written decades before the Willets Point West project emerged with the demolition of Shea Stadium in 2009, established that a shopping mall or other “trade and commerce” improvement is an “acceptable public purpose.”

“The public trust doctrine does not apply,” Mendez wrote in Avella v. City of New York, 100161/14. “Administrative Code §18-118[b] applies to the use of the property for a shopping mall, because it will serve the public purpose of improving trade or commerce. The legislature in designating other purposes for the use of the property has already resolved the issues related to the public trust doctrine.”

The Mets now play at CitiField. The former Shea Stadium site is a parking lot near the new stadium.

The Queens Development Group, comprised of corporate entitles related to Sterling Equities, the owner of the Mets, is proposing the $3 billion, 1.4 million-square-foot mall for a 27-acre site encompassing the former Shea and nearby properties now occupied by auto-body shops. A movie theater complex is also planned.

A coalition of groups and individuals, including Sen. Tony Avella, D-Queens, New York City Park Advocates, Queens Neighborhoods United and the Queens Civic Congress, contended that the public trust doctrine applied to Willets Point West. As such, they said it should be subject to re-zoning procedures and reviews by the New York City Council as prescribed under the city’s Charter.

Mendez, however, said that since the development is not subject to the public trust doctrine, the project has the necessary administrative approvals from the Queens Community Boards 3 and 7, the Queens borough president, the Zoning and Franchises subcommittees of the City Council, the City Council itself and the mayor’s office.

Mendez cited the state Court of Appeals’ finding in Union Square Park Community Coalition v. New York City Dept. of Parks and Recreation, 22 NY3d 648 (2014), that a court has wide discretion to determine what is or is not a park purpose in regard to the public trust doctrine (NYLJ, Feb. 21).

“A mere difference of opinion as to an appropriate park use does not result in a ‘demonstration of illegality,’” Mendez wrote, quoting from Union Square Park.

Judith Kaye, of counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, represented the Queens Development Group along with Skadden partner Jonathan Frank.

In a joint statement Wednesday, the lawyers called the ruling “a strong step forward for the city’s efforts to redevelop Willets Point into a vibrant and thriving community.”

John Low-Beer, who argued for the plaintiffs, said Mendez misunderstood the public trust doctrine.

“The state Legislature, when it passed the 1961 law permitting the construction of Shea Stadium, did not intend to allow construction of a shopping mall,” Low-Beer said Wednesday. “That law did not allow the construction of anything except a stadium and related facilities on the site. Plaintiffs will appeal, and believe that this decision will be reversed on appeal.”

The Queens Development Group is comprised of Sterling Willets LLC and The Related Willets LLC.

A second phase of planned development, to begin in December 2025, calls for construction of mixed-income housing, a public school and for expanses of open space.