A casino is not included in the Willets Point redevelopment plan announced last summer by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But according to bid documents obtained via the freedom of information law and provided to City Limits, the winning bidders on that project—a partnership led by the Related Companies and Sterling Equities—had submitted a plan to build a full-scale casino, as part of a massive 3.2 million-square-foot "sports and entertainment" complex completely off of the Willets Point site, on what's now a parking lot just west of CitiField. Sterling is the owner of the New York Mets.
For years the city has wanted to redevelop Willets Point, known as the "Iron Triangle" for its gritty mix of car-repair shops, factories, and scrap-metal yards. Its original plan called for a new 61-acre neighborhood east of CitiField, with housing, retail, a school, and a convention center. This scheme was later scaled back to take in just a first 23-acre parcel. But now at the center of the Related-Sterling project is a shopping mall with unspecified entertainment attractions on the CitiField parking lot.
Though the city, Related, and Sterling responded to inquiries for this article, none of them answered the question of whether the casino would be back in their plans if the state approves it.
The developers' proposal, then, provides a blueprint for how—and where—a casino could land in New York City, and it raises new questions about how the city selected who would build the Willets Point project. The proposal also shows why some believe a casino can do real harm to neighboring low-income communities.
An opening gambit
In describing "the creation of a world-class casino, hotel, retail, and entertainment destination," the pitch submitted by Related, Sterling, and Triple M Development ignored the project guidelines laid out in the city's Request for Proposals, acknowledging, "[O]ur development concept departs from the programming components of the City's master plan." Gone was the affordable housing that sold the Bloomberg administration's Willets Point initiative to the City Council back in 2008—in fact, the 270-page proposal contained no housing at all.
Most of the development would have taken place on parkland west of CitiField, with practically all of Willets Point getting paved over for surface parking lots. The developers said this strategy offered the "significant advantage" of "minimizing" the necessary costs to clean up polluted land on Willets Point and also avoided the building of basic infrastructure.
Their plan included the 900,000-square-foot casino; a 1.8 million-square-foot shopping mall with department stores, movie theaters, and bowling alleys; and a 500-room "premium" hotel, with restaurants, bars, and ballrooms. Renderings prominently featured the hotel's Flash Gordon-like tower, which would put a rooftop "pool club" on stems rising above the building. Millions would visit each year, the bid predicted.
In an introductory letter signed by Related's Jeff Blau, Sterling's Jeff Wilpon, and Triple M's Michael Malik, the developers offered the city "the unique opportunity" to "meaningfully participate in the revenue anticipated to be created by gaming opportunities in New York State." Triple M's principals include Michael and Marian Ilitch, founders of the Little Caesar's pizza chain. Michael Ilitch also is the owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers sports teams. With Malik, Marian Ilitch started Gateway Casino Resorts, a nationwide firm.
The developers proposed to spend $100 million to acquire all 61.4 acres of Willets Point in return for the right to develop the 66 acres Sterling currently controls in its lease with the city. They claimed the project would bring "in excess of $429,000,000" in public revenues annually as well as create more than 25,000 "direct and indirect" jobs and "over $300,000,000 in direct and indirect tax revenue over the course of the union-construction period."
"Our firms realize, and have given due consideration to the breadth, gravity and implications of this proposal," wrote the developers. "We stand ready to commit significant time and resources, and to work with [the New York City Economic Development Corporation], the Bloomberg Administration, and the appropriate City, State, and federal agencies and officials to realize this vision and make the Willets Point area the premier sports and entertainment destination in America."
Indians offered a strategic partnership
Related and Sterling developed this proposal just as city and state officials were expressing new openness to casino gambling. New Jersey, too, was challenging the federal ban to allow Atlantic City casinos to offer sports betting.
After failing to put a casino and convention center at Aqueduct racetrack, Gov. Andrew Cuomo reportedly considered proposals last summer for other parts of New York City, including a plan at Willets Point.
At the same time, Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed to welcome multiple casinos, saying, "This city is big enough to have more than one." Last August the Daily News reported a "source close to Silver said the Bloomberg administration is
privately backing Willets Point as a suitable spot."
While the conventional siting of a casino would require action in Albany—and an amendment to the state constitution—Related and Sterling's proposal offered a more creative solution to political negotiations, legal wrangling, and league prohibitions: The developers entered into an "exclusive agreement" with Gateway, which already had a contract with the Shinnecock Indian Nation to grow "gaming opportunities" in New York state. Owning a casino has been an elusive goal of the Long Island Shinnecocks, who— though one of the oldest self-governing tribes in America—didn't win federal recognition until 2010, after a 32-year battle.