Courts across the state have long recognized that cities and other governmental entities hold their parks in trust for the public, and cannot sell or lease these valuable resources without a specific law from the State Legislature authorizing such action.
This rule is intended to ensure that parkland is not given over for private or commercial purposes without the consent of the people, as represented by their legislature. No such law has been enacted here.
Listening to the spin from the city’s and the developers’ attorneys in State Supreme Court last week, including former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith Kaye, it is abundantly clear that the city believes it has no obligation to follow the law or protect the parkland that belongs to current and future generations of Queens residents.
The developers and the city painted a beautiful picture of a new community in Willets Point. However, their focus is on the megamall to be built on parkland, not on the housing which must wait, they say, until 2026.
Even then, they are under no enforceable obligation to build it, and if, as seems to be the case, it is not sufficiently profitable, they will not do so.
The developers and the city believe this new megamall will provide all the recreation necessary for Queens residents. While shopping may well be a national pastime on par with baseball, as they argued, it does not need government help, nor should it be allowed to displace a family’s ability to enjoy a simple game of tag, or even a ball game, free from commercialization in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
The city’s actions here raise fundamental issues more important than just a shopping mall – they have real ramifications in every corner of the five boroughs, especially for anyone concerned with the city’s democratic process, the commercialization of parkland and overdevelopment in our neighborhoods.
We live in a society of laws and the ends, no matter how desirable they may be, cannot justify means that bypass the legally required consent of the people. The city must be held accountable and the community must have its say.
A more transparent process should commence promptly – one that includes the residents and business owners of Queens, as well as all the affected community boards (not only those adjacent to Willets Point), the Planning Commission, the City Council, and ultimately the State Legislature.
State Senator Tony Avella represents the 11th District in Queens and John Low-Beer is the lead plaintiffs’ attorney fighting the Willets Point Development Project.