May 12, 2021 By Christina Santucci
The Queens Borough Board voted to approve plans for the first phase of Willets Point’s redevelopment Monday evening – which would include construction of 1,100 affordable apartments, public open space and a new public elementary school on six acres of land.
The board, which is headed by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and includes City Councilmembers and community board chairpersons, gave the greenlight to the long-term lease terms during its meeting – with nine votes in favor and one abstention. The financial details of the lease were not discussed.
Under the plan, the six-acre site would be leased to Queens Development Group, LLC – a joint venture between Stephen Ross’ Related Companies and Sterling Equities, a real estate company that previously owned the Mets. Sterling Equities, which is owned by the Wilpon family and Saul Katz, sold the team in October.
The plan was approved with three conditions: that the EDC provide more regular reporting about the remediation of the school site, that meetings be held every other month to address community concerns, and that 50 percent of housing be designated for residents of Community Board 7.
The third condition would only apply if the city’s policy of allocating 50 percent of affordable units to people already living in the community district remains on the books when the Willets Point housing is built. The Anti-Discrimination Center is currently suing the city over the policy.
The next step for the plan – which consists of multiple leases up to 99 years long – is the deal’s closing, said Jana Pohorelsky, the EDC’s assistant vice president for Government & Community Relations.
“Tonight is about turning the tide at Willets Point by kickstarting the remediation and infrastructure investment that will literally pave the way for long awaited benefits in this area,” Pohorelsky told meeting attendees.
Pohorelsky said the city aims to start its remediation this summer and then move on to infrastructure construction in 2022. Construction of affordable housing and the school is expected to begin in 2024.
Three residential buildings – with 1,100 apartments – would be built at the site. Of those apartments, 220 units would be designated for seniors under the Senior Affordable Rental Apartments (SARA) Program, and another 99 would be designated for families who were previously homeless.
The other 781 apartments would be set aside for households in six different income groupings – ranging from 30 percent to 130 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI). For example, incomes would be capped at $32,220 for a family of three in the lowest bracket and $139,620 for a three-person family in the highest grouping – based on 2021 guidelines.
Pohorelsky said that about 55 percent of the apartments – including those for seniors – are reserved for households making less than 60 percent of the AMI – which is $64,440 for a family of three and $71,580 for a family of four in 2021.
The redevelopment also includes new streets and utilities, approximately 25,000 square feet of retail space, a 3,000-square-foot community facility space, about 310 parking spaces, an acre of open space and a K-8 school with 650 seats. The number of seats was increased from 450 in a previous agreement.
During a question and answer session, Community Board 7 Vice Chairperson Chuck Apelian raised concerns about the remediation of the school site – and his worries were echoed by Councilmembers I. Daneek Miller, Peter Koo and Bob Holden.
The school will be built within a 23-acre brownfield site in Willets Point. Pohorelsky said the environmental remediation of the brownfield will be coordinated and supervised by the state Department of Conservation and Department of Health.
The cleanup plan includes a steel, water-tight groundwater containment wall to protect the Phase One site from contamination seeping in, a layer of clean new earth placed after contaminated soil is removed, and a soil vapor mitigation system installed underneath the buildings’ foundations to prevent contaminants from becoming airborne.
Pohorelsky said that the city is complying with guidelines set by DEC and coordinating with the School Construction Authority – which she said was standard practice for city school sites.
Holden said he had a number of unanswered questions about the standards – and cost – of the remediation. “What I want is numbers, and we are not hearing them,” he said.
Councilmember Francisco Moya then responded to Holden, saying, “If you think that me – as a representative of the area – would not put the children’s safety first, then you’re sadly mistaken and you don’t know me as a colleague.”
Holden later abstained from the vote, citing his concerns. Apelian – as well as Councilmembers Karen Koslowitz, Paul Vallone, Barry Grodenichik, Adrienne Adams Selvena Brooks-Powers, Miller, Koo and Moya – voted in favor.
Moya praised the plan’s affordable housing, as well as the construction of a new school, during his comments earlier in the meeting.
“The overcrowding of our schools is an epidemic problem here. This new school will help alleviate that,” Moya said. “This is a very historic step forward.”
Pohorelsky also said that Queens Development Group pledged to pay workers a prevailing wage, participate in HireNYC, a program geared at getting local workers jobs, and set a 25 percent hiring target from minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE). There was no estimate available Monday for the number of jobs that would be created.
Richards said he would like the target to be set at 30 percent for local workers and MWBE firms.
Attempts to redevelop Willets Point have been in the works for several decades.
“This issue – Willets Point – has been kicked around for so long, that I was attending the Borough Board as a representative for Governor Mario Cuomo,” Grodenchik said. “I think it’s time to move ahead on this issue.”
The six acres to be addressed in Phase One are part of the 61-acre Special Willets Point District, bordered by 126th Street, Roosevelt Avenue, Northern Boulevard and the Van Wyck Expressway. Other parts of the district would be addressed in subsequent phases.
Pohorelsky said during the meeting that the specifics of Phase Two have not yet been determined.
“I hope we continue to work together to get the rest of Willets Point done,” Moya said.