At Willets Point, Unusual Uncertainty Over Political Path Ahead

The road to approving a mega-project in New York City often follows a similar formula, with a months-long political dance carried out between the city or developer and local member/members of the City Council. Last-minute compromises and agreements are routine, and once a project starts the city’s land-use approval process, defeats are almost without precedent.

However, the dynamic surrounding the planned redevelopment of Willets Point is proving far less simple than the typical fare, as both observers and those involved seem genuinely unsure as to how the Council will ultimately vote on the project.

Among the issues adding complexity to the political scene: A Council that was offended by the start of the rezoning process; a Council speaker who has been politically weakened by a stream of spending investigations; an atypical approval structure whereby the city selects a developer post-rezoning; a mayor set to be termed out of office in a year and a half; a State Senate election in November in which the local councilman is the front-runner; a powerful landowners group with effective lawyers and lobbyists in its court; and the threatened use of eminent domain by the city, all on a piece of land that has resisted redevelopment for decades.

A majority of the Council, led by local Councilman Hiram Monserrate, publicly opposed the city’s move to start the rezoning process three months ago. And while the Bloomberg administration has won some victories recently–the community board endorsed the plan; the city has reached acquisition deals with three property owners; and organized labor now supports the project–Mr. Monserrate and others still express clear opposition to the project as currently planned.

The big question–how much of the opposition is standard political negotiating versus a genuine willingness to block the project–will likely not get an answer until mid-November, when the Council votes on the plan. (Also of note: Mr. Monserrate is running for State Senate and would likely vote on the plan just days after Election Day.)

With a hearing in Queens on the project today and a rally this morning, we spoke with Mr. Monserrate last night, and he offered three main points that he wants to see resolved:

  • Eminent Domain–Mr. Monserrate said he wants an assurance that the city will not engage in the “wholesale use of eminent domain” in the project. More land deals need to be made or the city needs to come up with some other way of committing to a limited use of eminent domain before the Council votes on the project, he said. “I am not saying that some eminent domain can’t be used–I think that there’s a use,” he said.
  • Housing–Mr. Monserrate wants far more of a commitment to below-market-rate housing. The Bloomberg administration has thus far pledged that 20 percent of the units will be below-market rate; affordable housing groups want 60 percent. Agreements on housing usually come late in the approval process, perhaps just before a vote. “The number has to be dramatically higher,” Mr. Monserrate said. “Eighty-twenty is unacceptable. … Come back with a number that’s real, and not a negotiating ploy that’s an insult.”
  • Developer Approval–The plan currently calls for the city first to rezone the land with Council approval and then select a developer (the city believes it has to go this route to comply with eminent domain law). Mr. Monserrate and others, including the Land Use Committee’s chairwoman, Melinda Katz, have expressed concerns with this structure. (The Council often wrests concessions from a developer, and without a second approval round, would be unable to have much say in the final plan.) “It has to come back to the Council,” he said. “We are the check and balance system in city government.”

For its part, the Bloomberg administration has said it hopes to resolve more issues and reach more agreements as the seven-month land-use approval process continues, and it is open to negotiation on many points.

From Jeff Roberts, spokesman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation: “We’ve been speaking with all electeds including Councilman Monserrate on a regular basis. We understand the concilman’s concerns and look forward to continuing our dialogue as the ULURP approval process continues.”

At Willets Point, Unusual Uncertainty Over Political Path Ahead