Queens Borough President Donovan Richards says he is not yet ready to recommend approval of the Willets Point redevelopment that includes the NYCFC soccer stadium.
When asked by Hudson River Blue about the status of his recommendation on the Willets Point project, Richards said he was waiting to get firmer written commitments from NYCFC and its developer partners on specific community-focused issues he’s raised during the approval process.
“We are continuing talks. I am not at a ‘yes’ yet, but I’m hopeful that a lot of the things we’ve requested, by the deadline, will be met. There’s been no pushback, we just want to see everything in writing—if it’s not in writing it’s not real,” BP Richards said when asked about the project during an end-of-year media roundtable held on December 18.
The Willets Point project has been in the Borough President review stage of New York City’s uniform land use review procedure (ULURP) since it was given a vote of approval by Queens Community Board 7 back on December 4.
Community board approval opened a 30-day review window for the Borough President’s office, which held its one public hearing on Willets Point “phase two” on December 13.
Richards has until January 10 to approve or disapprove of the project. His ULURP recommendation, like the one given recently by Community Board 7, is only advisory in nature, but it carries weight and could be crucial to ensuring further approvals from the City Planning Commission, City Council, and Mayor’s office, the next three parties to review the NYCFC stadium proposal as part of ULURP.
While the wait goes on for the Borough President to issue his recommendation, another ULURP approval feels like more a matter of “when” than “if.”
Richards told HRB that there has been “no pushback” from the developers on the subjects his office has focused on, while also acknowledging that the Willets Point developers did make some commitments to his liking during the December 13 public hearing.
“Everything we talked about in the hearing, it was nothing new, we’ve been talking to them [Willets developers] for over a year on the many commitments we brought up at the hearing,” Richards told HRB.
During that public hearing, BP Richards pressed the Willets Point developers, NYCFC representatives included, to make commitments to things like hiring local Queens-based workers, ensuring nearby street vendors have opportunities to be a part of the concessions offered at the NYCFC stadium, and that said soccer stadium will also be accessible to and utilized by kids from nearby Queens neighborhoods.
Queens street vendors have long been a focus of the Borough President in relation to Willets Point redevelopment. In October, BP Richards vowed to block the progress of the NYCFC stadium unless Mayor Eric Adams allowed displaced vendors to return to Corona Plaza.
A deal has since been reached for the vendors to return to Corona Plaza, but Richards wants commitments that local street vendors will also have a place in the future NYCFC stadium.
“We don’t want vending to just happen on our streets, we want these folks to be able to grow their products and really turn them into larger businesses, big household names,” Richards said.
During the BP’s public hearing, NYCFC representative Dan White of lobbying firm Geto & de Milly said that a food service vendor has not yet been selected for the NYCFC stadium, but once chosen, that operator will “work with NYCFC to design a program that will include Queens-based vendors.”
Richards also wanted to hear more about local communities having access to the soccer stadium, not satisfied during his public hearing by developer mentions of hosting local youth soccer tournaments and graduations, stressing a need for kids from the neighborhoods near the stadium to have direct access to the field.
While Richards and his office wait for written confirmation that the developers will meet some of his requirements, one unresolved piece of the Willets Point puzzle that is not causing Richards much concern is the still-ongoing negotiations between NYCFC, the Mets, and the New York City Parks Department over sharing the Citi Field parking lots on soccer match days.
When asked if there were any concerns around this prolonged, somewhat contentious situation that has seen billionaire Mets owner Steve Cohen reportedly “play hardball” over the sharing of his baseball stadium parking lots to help in his own quest to build a casino, Richards seemed unconcerned.
“It’s going to get resolved,” Richards said, while also acknowledging he understood Cohen’s use of the parking lots as leverage. “I love using leverage, I don’t knock anyone trying to use their leverage as they need it, but I’m 100% positive that this will be resolved.”
As mentioned above, the deadline for the Borough President to weigh in with his recommendation on the NYCFC stadium project is January 10. Richards did say that the groundbreaking for Willets Point “phase one,” which includes 1,100 units of affordable housing and a school, is scheduled for this Wednesday.
NYCFC supporters likely hoped to have an approval from the BP in hand before the end-of-year holiday period, but Richards is playing his final proverbial hand in the stadium approval process to extract as many community-focused commitments as possible.
“We don’t support or aid and abet these large stadium projects that come into communities that do very little to benefit them,” said Richards. “These benefits have to reach the communities, kids who live in the surrounding neighborhoods of Corona and Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst, deserve to touch the field the same way. They deserve for their feet to kick a soccer ball on the turf.”