Despite the stagnant real estate market in New York City, the Bloomberg administration has decided to go ahead with plans for one of its landmark redevelopment projects, the transformation of Willets Point from a down-and-out mechanics row to a gleaming new community complete with a mid-size convention center. At the same time, because of the stagnant real estate market, the city is taking a different approach with its plans, having released on Monday a request for qualifications for the project that focuses on redeveloping an 18-acre swath of the 62-acre area that was rezoned almost a year ago.
The RFQ is seeking developers to build a retail and commercial hub along the western edge of Willets Point, known as “Area A.” This staged approach presents a number of potential advantages beyond its lesser cost compared to a wholesale redevelopment. Area A is on parcels bordering the new Mets Stadium as well as being the densest part of the development because it is outside the LaGuardia flight path, both of which make it more appealing for investment. Also, the city controls the most property out of the three areas, as it has been working to buy out the scrap yards, auto body shops, and factories that have dominated Willets Point for decades.
“Area A is envisioned to become an urban residential community with fantastic views and a dynamic skyline,” according to the RFQ. “Residential and commercial uses are stacked above retail to create an integrated (24/7) neighborhood.” The area would include 980,000 square feet of retail space, 500,000 square feet of office space, 430 hotel rooms, 2,100 residential units, and possibly a school. Building heights are planned to rise as high as 215 feet, providing quite the views over Citifield’s right field wall.
And while the convention center, seen as a linchpin to the project’s success, will not likely be built in the first phase, its location has been determined as part of the RFQ. The city had been considering both the eastern and northern edges of the site, though the latter, now known as “Area C” won out. The eastern parcels of “Area B” will be dedicated to residential uses—roughly 3,000 units—and local retail.(Oddly enough, the alternative proposal is the one shown on the cover of the RFQ.)
The entire development is one of a handful being put forward by the city as pilot for the U.S. Green Building’s new LEED for Neighborhood Development program. As part of this effort, the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which is developing the project, is creating a special set of design guidelines with Beyer Blinder Belle. “Willets Point Design Guidelines are being developed to supplement the Special Zoning District and convey additional goals for urban design, pedestrian experience, streetscape, open space and architectural character,” according to the RFQ. The city expects to release those guidelines, which are being developed by Beyer Blinder Belle, next year along with a more formal request for proposals, assuming the RFQ generates enough interest.
“The release of this Request for Qualifications once again moves the Willets Point project, one of the largest in our borough’s history, another step forward and closer to reality,” said Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, a long-standing proponent of the project. “Each step forward gives us a clearer vision of a plan that will redevelop Willets Point in way that will capitalize on the resources surrounding it, including recreational uses and a network of highways, while strengthening the entire region.
The city is proceeding cautiously with its plan, but it makes clear in the RFQ that the project could change at any point, getting bigger or smaller as the market dictates. A big factor in its progress is the businesses that remain in Area A. As opposition to the rezoning of the area reached a groundswell last year, with local business contending the only blight in the area was caused by longstanding neglect from the city, the Economic Development Corporation began negotiating with landlords in the area in order to avoid eminent domain at the site.
The agency has paraded out announcements every few months or so, and ownership in Area A now stands at 70 percent. “We are in active discussions with several additional land owners within the first development stage and would like to acquire all the privately-held property by negotiated acquisition,” Janel Patterson, and EDC spokesperson, said in an email. She noted that the city also controls roughly 60 percent within the entire 62-acre district. Representatives for two local business groups did not return requests for comment.
One thing is clear, however. Despite the changing economy, the city has not drastically reconsidered its plans. While the RFQ notes that a 4-acre buffer zone would be created between Area A and the remaining businesses, Patterson said there was little chance those businesses might be allowed to stay for good. “Industrial users in the eastern portion will eventually have to be moved,” she said.