An architect's rendering of the proposed shopping center at the Willets Point West development.
An architect’s rendering of the proposed shopping center at the Willets Point West development. (Queens Development Group)

The construction of a mixed-use, mall-anchored development on the former site of Shea Stadium in Queens, without the state Legislature’s approval, would violate the doctrine restricting the use of public lands for private purposes, a Manhattan appellate court ruled Thursday.

The decision by a four-judge panel of the Appellate Division, First Department, reverses a ruling by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Manuel Mendez who had dismissed claims by opponents of the Willets Point West development that the project would violate the public trust doctrine (NYLJ, Aug. 21, 2014).

The central flashpoint between the parties is their dueling interpretations of New York City Administrative Code §18-118, which was adopted in 1961 and allowed the New York Mets to use a portion of what is now called Flushing Meadows-Corona Park for the construction of Shea Stadium.

The law also states that the subject land can be used for parking, to “improve trade and commerce” and alleviate urban blight.

In 2009, the Mets moved to neighboring CitiField and Shea Stadium was demolished. The former site is now a parking lot.

Developers for Willets Point West argue that the project is legal because it would “use” the parking areas authorized under Administrative Code §18-118 and that the proposed retail development for the site would improve trade and commerce.

But opponents—a coalition of individuals, businesses and community groups including state Sen. Tony Avella, D-Queens, the City Club of New York, the Queens Civic Congress and Joseph Ardizzone, Willets Point’s sole resident—argue that the project site is still mapped parkland and that the legislative intent behind Administrative Code §18-118 was for a stadium and uses associated with it, not for “a gigantic commercial development profiting private estate developers and retailers,” according to court papers.

In 2013, the New York City Economic Development Corporation and an entity called the Queens Development Group—a joint venture that includes companies controlled by Sterling Equities Associates, which owns the Mets—submitted a two-phase development plan to the city for the site, of which the first phase includes the construction of a 1.4 million square foot shopping mall and a movie theater on 30.7 acres.

That part of the plan also calls for improvements to public infrastructure in Willets Point, an area east of CitiField that does not contain sewers, sidewalks or stoplights and is home to more than 200 auto repair shops.

The proposed improvements to the area, which has been deemed blighted by the city, include the construction of sewage systems, roads and ramps to access Van Wyck Expressway.

The first phase of development was scheduled to begin this year. A second phase, which is not set to commence for at least another decade, includes the construction of mixed-income housing, a public school and additional acres of open space, though the developers have the option of forgoing the second phase if they pay $35 million in liquidated damages.

After the development plan was approved by the City Council and the mayor, the plaintiffs filed suit against the city and the developers to enjoin the project.

Martinez found for the developers in Avella v. City of New York, 100161/14, ruling that the provision of Administrative Code §18-118 that allows the land to be used for the improvement or trade or commerce permits the construction of a shopping mall.

The First Department panel disagreed.

Justice Angela Mazzarelli said that purposes for the use of the subject law—”considered in vacuum”—are not necessarily related to a stadium, but that the law contains specific examples of purposes that are traditionally associated with a stadium, including athletic events, concerts and assemblies.

“Its focus is on the stadium, and the stadium only,” Mazzarelli wrote. “There is simply no basis to interpret the statute as authorizing the construction of another structure that has no natural connection to a stadium.”

Mazzarelli was joined by Justices Dianne Renwick, Sallie Manzanet-Daniels and Darcel Clark.

“Today’s decision sends a message loud and clear—our parks are not for sale,” said Avella in a statement issued by his office. “This land was intended to be parkland, not the development of a shopping mall. In a city where public land is in short supply, simply handing parkland over is a betrayal of the public trust.”

In an interview, John Low-Beer, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said his clients were concerned that if the shopping mall were constructed, the developers would not follow through with further development plans to build affordable housing in the area and would instead settle on paying the $35 million penalty.

“The most likely result of this is that we would have ended up with a regional shopping mall and that Willets Point would become a parking lot,” Low-Beer said.

The plaintiffs were also represented by Lorna Goodman.

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom partner Jonathan Frank and Judith Kaye, who is of counsel to the firm, represent Queens Development Group and Queens Ballpark Company.

Karen Binder and Jesse Masyr, partners at Fox Rothschild, appeared for Related Willets and Sterling Willets, which are part of Queens Development Group.

Michael Pastor and Richard Dearing of the city’s Law Department appeared for the city.

Attorneys for the defendants did not respond to requests for comment.