Flushing — For more than half a century New York City politicians have tried to redevelop Willets Point, the stretch of auto repair shops, factories, warehouses and scrap metal yards off the Flushing River in northern Queens. In the latest bid to revive his own plan for the area, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has unveiled a new project that would include a shopping mall on the Citi Field parking lot.

The mayor announced last month that the developers would be Sterling Equities, the real estate firm of Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, and the Related Companies, a partner in previous plans by the Bloomberg administration, notably the Gateway Center Mall on the site of the old Bronx Terminal Market.

Restaurants, stores, and a 200-room hotel would go up on the Willets Point side of 126th Street, just east of Citi Field, though the city does not entirely own the property. The proposed shopping mall west of the stadium may face a larger hurdle: The parking lot is part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. State law requires the alienation of parkland before it can be used for non-park purposes.

To meet that requirement, Bloomberg has reached back to a law passed 51 years ago, summoning an uncertain ally in the ghost of Robert Moses. But questions surround this curious piece of legislation, setting up the latest in a string of disputes over city-sponsored developments on public parkland.

"Yes, this area is parkland," says Benjamin Branham, a spokesman for the city's Economic Development Corporation, "but development is permitted under the 1961 law that authorized the construction of Shea Stadium—known as Administrative Code 18-118—which also allowed for additional uses to be built on the parking lot. It's important to be clear the authorization comes from this law as opposed to a contract or other agreement of some kind."

Yet, as recently as 2001, New York's highest court ruled parkland can't be taken, even for temporary use, without an explicit act of alienation passed by the state Legislature and approved by the Governor: "[O]ur courts have time and again reaffirmed the principle that parkland is impressed with a public trust, requiring legislative approval before it can be alienated or used for an extended period for non-park purposes."

The court's 2001 decision forced the city to seek approval from the state Legislature before building the Croton Water Treatment Plant in Van Cortlandt Park, and as compensation for the use of public parkland, the Bloomberg administration earmarked $240 million for park improvements throughout the Bronx. In 2005 the state Legislature alienated 25.3 acres of Macombs Dam and Mullaly parks before the building of the new Yankee Stadium, and as part of that legislation, the city was required to replace the lost parkland. Currently, the Bloomberg administration plans to ask the state Legislature to alienate 0.76 acres of Flushing Meadows Corona Park before expanding the USTA National Tennis Center, just across Roosevelt Avenue from the Citi Field site.

A power broker's pet project

In his announcement of the shopping mall at Citi Field, Bloomberg recalled the area had been described as "a valley of ashes" in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Focusing on the pending private development, the mayor made no mention of the millions in federal, state, and local government dollars Robert Moses had marshaled to turn the Corona Ash Dumps into the site of the 1939 World's Fair. In plotting to leave behind a great park, Moses had quoted a biblical source: Isaiah’s “Give unto them beauty for ashes.”

Flushing Meadows—New York's second-largest park—was Moses' pet project. Before the building of Shea Stadium, Moses was preparing for another World's Fair at Flushing Meadows, though he ultimately viewed both Fairs as a means to build his legacy park. He even had a hand in crafting legislation that set aside Fair proceeds for Flushing Meadows. "I don't think RM really ever cared about the Fair," one aide told author Robert Caro. "What he cared about—what he was always talking about—was what the Fair could do for parks."

In 1960 Moses gave up his longtime title of Parks Commissioner, but his replacement, Newbold Morris, was selected for his "utter subservience" to Moses, according to Caro, who wrote, "Morris was Park Commissioner only in name. Robert Moses was still running the Department exactly as he had run it before—as anyone having much business with the Department soon found out."

Moses presided over the 1961 groundbreaking for Shea Stadium. He had originally offered to build the municipal arena in Flushing Meadows for the Brooklyn Dodgers and resurrected the plan when the city pushed for a new National League franchise.

The state Legislature approved his building of Shea Stadium in the park, but its 1961 legislation was primarily aimed at granting the city authority to issue bonds to finance construction. It loosely laid out the permitted uses for the stadium and grounds, listing "recreation, entertainment, amusement, education, enlightenment, cultural development or betterment, and improvement of trade and commerce." The law even allowed the city to use the site for "any business or commercial purpose," so long as this activity "aids in the financing of the construction and operation of [the] stadium, grounds, parking areas and facilities" and "does not interfere with the accomplishment of the purposes referred to" above.

"The bill reads like a Robert Moses special," says Geoffrey Croft of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates. The broad powers it conferred were a hallmark of the Power Broker, who was so well-practiced in the black art of political legislating that Al Smith once called him "the best bill-drafter I know." The Parks Commissioner could enter into agreements to use part or all of the stadium grounds, but any agreements lasting for more than a year had to be approved by the Board of Estimate, which included the mayor, the comptroller, the City Council president, and all of the borough presidents.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Board of Estimate unconstitutional, because it violated the “one man, one vote” rule—for example, the borough president of Brooklyn (the city’s most populous county) had no more power than the borough president of Staten Island (the least populous county). With the elimination of the Board of Estimate,
the city's Law Department says, the power of site approval under the 1961 Shea Stadium law now rests solely with the mayor. A shopping mall may not offer the "enlightenment" referenced in the text, but a Bloomberg administration spokesperson describes the new project as a "retail/entertainment complex" benefiting “trade and commerce.”