A $1 billion shopping mall planned for the parking lot of the New York Mets' stadium would spearhead a major transformation of a blighted neighborhood, developers testified Wednesday.
But opponents argued that the 1.4 million-square-foot mall and other plans for their Queens neighborhood would simply benefit developers while pushing out local businesses.
"They're the most vulnerable citizens, and, most likely, they'll go bankrupt and die," said attorney Edward De Barbieri, of the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Both sides testified at a hearing before the City Planning Commission. The commission has to vote on the project — part of a larger, $3 billion revitalization of the Willets Point neighborhood — before it heads to the City Council for a final decision.
Richard Browne, of Sterling Equities, which is developing the mall complex along with Related Cos., said it will serve the local community because "Queens doesn't have enough retail." At the same time, he said, development promises to bring in more affordable housing.
Not so, said Irene Prestigiacomo, who owns property used by an auto repair business.
"It's all smoke and mirrors," she told commissioners. "They want to take my property and give it to developers. It's a land grab."
Dozens of small businesses in Willets Point — from scrapyards to auto repair shops — already have closed in the past months.
Other residents who testified said the mall would rise on city-owned land while developers receive tens of millions of dollars in subsidies.
Ed Westley, a member of Community Board 3, noted that traffic to the area will increase and the subway will be so overcrowded "that the No. 7 train will need to be a double-decker."
The mall also has the support of Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, who has said it will create a "vibrant full-time retail, entertainment and residential community" that will generate local jobs and tax revenue.
Before any real work can begin, the polluted, neglected neighborhood must undergo environmental testing and cleanup that could take several years.
Then comes the first phase: construction on a 23-acre swath of land where the city expects to start demolition to prepare for construction of the mall.
A parking lot adjacent to the stadium would be converted into a vertical shopping complex with 200 stores, a movie theater, restaurants, entertainment venues and a 2,500-space parking garage.
Another 40 acres of mostly parkland would be used to expand the National Tennis Center and build a 35,000-seat professional soccer stadium. In addition, office space, a hotel and a school are envisioned. That could take at least another decade.