After a long, quiet off-season, it’s good to be getting ready for activity around Citi Field. And we’re not talking just about baseball.
While pitchers and catchers were preparing to report to spring training, New York City and the Queens Development Group were quietly working on an agreement to develop six acres at Willets Point, the run-down neighborhood east of Citi Field.
The developers, which include Sterling Project Development, the real estate arm of the New York Mets’ Wilpon family, and Related Companies, will clean up and improve a slice of land along Roosevelt Avenue and Willets Point Boulevard, an area of chemically laden sewerless property and unpaved roads. Then, they will build 1,100 units of affordable housing, plus an elementary school.
It’s a significant step for a project that’s been through starts and stops over 15 years. But it’s only a small piece of what can happen there. When the Bloomberg administration first conceived of a Willets Point project, it was to cover 62 acres. Then it shrank to 23. Now, we’re down to a quarter of that.
Nonetheless, any plan to get shovels in the ground at the area known as the Iron Triangle is worth applause. The proposal to start with affordable housing is a good one. That part of Queens desperately needs housing and schools. With hundreds of units for homeless families and people earning less than $50,000, it appears city officials are trying to make sure the units will be truly affordable, not in name only.
But the lack of a game plan for the rest of the property is a concern. The city is convening a task force, to be chaired by Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and City Council member Francisco Moya, to determine the best uses for the 17 acres across 126th Street from Citi Field. Katz would like to see a soccer stadium, and the New York City Football Club (partly owned by the New York Yankees) is looking for a home after losing a bid to build at Belmont Park. That could be a boon for Queens, which has lots of soccer fans, but it’s unclear whether the idea is politically palatable.
In any case, it’s likely the 17 acres will include at least some revenue-producing development, such as retail, hotels and more, because the initial six acres will not. Whatever is built must meet the community’s needs while providing an economic boost to the region. What’s more, any Willets Point development must contemplate transportation needs. City and state officials should work together to create a transit hub there, to assure improvements are made to the Long Island Rail Road and subway stations, and to coordinate on the development of a LaGuardia AirTrain that could terminate there.
Also important: The Queens Development Group is required to clean up the six acres, but the city and developer will have to make sure the remaining 17 acres closer to Citi Field are cleaned, too. The smaller parcel can’t become a clean oasis with a toxic dump next door.
After years of inaction, it’s promising to see construction, especially affordable housing, at Willets Point. The larger goal should be to create a vibrant community, a centerpiece of Queens that’s an economic and transportation hub. To do that, the city, state, developers, transit officials and community must play ball — together.