Steve Cohen’s plan to build a casino at Willets Point has hit a significant political snag.
A politician who represents the communities around Citi Field is currently unwilling to advance legislation the billionaire owner of the Mets needs to clear the path for him to launch a casino-centric redevelopment of 50 acres of Citi Field parking lots.
Last Friday, New York State Senator Jessica Ramos held a town hall for her constituents to discuss Cohen’s proposed project. After Senator Ramos estimated that “65 percent” of speakers at the town hall opposed the casino plan, she told the New York Post that “My neighbors and I are not currently in a place where it would be appropriate to introduce parkland alienation legislation.”
“Parkland alienation legislation” is a jargony mouthful, but is at the heart of the drama that surrounds Cohen’s plans for developing Citi Field’s parking lots. Those lots have officially been considered parkland since 1939, and require legislation passed in both the New York State Assembly and Senate, and the approval of New York Governor Kathy Hocuhl, to be cleared for new construction.
New York State Assembly member Jeffrion Aubry introduced a bill in his legislative chamber to “alienate” the land back in March, but Senator Ramos’s recent statement means no such matching legislation will arrive in the Senate before New York’s legislative session ends in June. This does not mean Cohen’s casino is dead on arrival, but it certainly throws a wrench into the billionaire’s plans as he attempts to secure one of three newly-available “downstate” casino licenses currently up for grabs in New York.
This all should be of interest to followers of New York City FC, as those 50 acres of Citi Field parking lots are somewhat problematically connected to NYCFC’s own big Willets Point development project.
This fresh setback for Steve Cohen’s casino dream doesn’t seem likely to change the billionaire’s negative stance on NYCFC’s stadium. The City reported last week that Cohen is vehemently opposed to the NYCFC Willets Point stadium, and is attempting to “play hardball” over NYCFC utilizing Citi Field’s parking lots to handle match day parking needs once that planned soccer stadium opens circa 2027.
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While the Cohen casino and NYCFC stadium developments are completely separate and intended for entirely different parcels of Willets Point land, the parking entanglement and extremely close proximity makes it hard to avoid comparing the two.
It’s also striking to see the contrasting political environments that currently surround each of the proposed Willets Point developments.
Cohen has struggled to gain support for his parking lot-to-casino scheme among Queens politicians, while the $780 million plan that includes NYCFC’s future stadium has been championed by influential New York politicians.
Mayor Eric Adams continued to cheerlead for NYCFC’s Willets Point stadium while attending the team’s “Queens home opener” back in mid-April. A new profile from City & State of City Council member Francisco Moya describes his desire to bring professional soccer to Queens as a goal that “encompasses everything he stands for as both an elected official and a lifetime resident of Corona.”
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards also continues to speak positively of the planned redevelopment of Willets Point, and memorably was so enthusiastic about the plans that he disclosed details of NYCFC’s stadium a full week before the official public announcement.
State Senator Jessica Ramos, a main roadblock currently standing in the way of Cohen’s casino, is an NYCFC supporter and frequent attendee of home matches. (Source: her own Instagram!)
Right now, NYCFC’s piece of the Willets Point redevelopment puzzle feels less controversial and less uncertain when compared directly to Steve Cohen’s casino gambit.
While Cohen and his well-paid lobbyists have tried to emphasize the need to better utilize the “50 acres of asphalt” that currently surround Citi Field, the casino portion of the plan has dominated all discussion and proved to be a divisive lightning rod among community residents and elected officials.
Thus far, the NYCFC portion of the Willets Point plan has received mostly positive (if limited) community feedback. Its highest-profile political opponent looks to be former Queens elected official and convicted felon Hiram Monserrate, who has been trying and failing to get back into elected office in Queens after doing time in federal prison on federal corruption charges.
Monserrate is back on the ballot this June, attempting a primary challenge against Queens soccer stadium champion Francisco Moya, who himself defeated Monserrate in a primary back in 2017.
NYCFC’s stadium project is, at the moment, benefiting from the support it has at the highest levels of city government. That support is vital and has created a sense of confidence about the NYCFC stadium actually coming to fruition this time around.
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The separate, unrelated problems Steve Cohen is encountering across the street should still give NYCFC and its supporters some pause. The New York political landscape can change quickly, as can community sentiment over multi-million-dollar construction projects that promise to transform entire neighborhoods.
The 2,500 units of entirely affordable housing promised as part of NYCFC’s building plans at Willets Point are likely helping to keep the good vibes in place, but will that be enough to get the project over the proverbial land use review finish line?
People have been trying and failing to “transform” Willets Point for multiple decades, spanning multiple New York Mayors and multiple proposals for improving all the unused, abused land in the “Valley of Ashes.” While NYCFC right now look to have an inside track on getting their stadium built alongside lots of housing, a new school, and a hotel, politics and community sentiments around projects of this nature can change quickly and unexpectedly.
So while it’s tempting to bask in the misfortunes of a local billionaire who opposes NYCFC’s stadium and, for once, might not get his way, it also feels a bit like tempting fate.
The political pickle facing Steve Cohen’s casino could still come to engulf NYCFC’s part of the Willets Point plans, and until that final ULURP approval is in place, NYCFC’s stadium dream will remain in something of a tenuous purgatory.