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Willets Point’s billion-dollar mall on parkland is debated in court

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At issue is the use of public land for private gain

In the foreground is an empty lot. In the distance is a sports stadium. Max Touhey

The fate of the Willets Point megaproject is now in the hands of the state’s highest court. On Tuesday, it began hearing arguments on the $3 billion mixed-use development Queens Development Group is hoping will bring thousands of apartments and a mall to the large stretch of land formerly occupied by auto-repair shops and a parking lot near Citi Field, in Queens, Crain’s reports.

The Willets Point megaproject is a joint venture between Sterling Equities, controlled by the Wilpon family who also own the New York Mets, and Related Companies. Together they’re known as the Queens Development Group and are operating under the intention of bringing 2,500 apartments and the aforementioned mall to the site.

The lawsuit, however, is focused explicitly on the mall project, which is slated to rise on a parking lot east of Citi Field, the former site of Shea Stadium. The lawsuit revolves around the proper use of the land, officially parkland belonging to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and under long-term lease to the Mets, in relation to a 1961 law okaying the lease. At issue is the use of public land for private gain.

“The primary purpose of this activity is a private purpose: to lease space and set up a shopping mall so people will spend money in the context of going to a sports event,” Justice Eugene Fahey said on Tuesday, the Daily News reports, going on to ask if the state Legislature had to approve the land use.

An assistant solicitor general for the state held up the argument that mall and accompanying movie theater, known as Willets West, will serve the public with accessible open space and rooftop garden.

But Justice Fahey was unmoving in his stance that the mall would primarily serve private over public interest. “We can clearly see the economic viability of the project. [The 1961 law] was aiming to provide a home for the how far can you go askew of that?”

The City Council voted to back the project in its entirety in December 2015, but at the time was lacking the support of the De Blasio administration. The administration has since reversed course and decided to support the development.

A decision isn’t expected for at least a few months.