This rendering shows the proposed mall-movie theater project near Citi Field.
The state’s highest court tossed a curveball to the city and a Queens developer hoping to build a $1 billion mall near Citi Field.
At least four judges on the six-judge panel of the Court of Appeals appeared skeptical of arguments by the city, state and developer, Queens Development Group, that the mall could be built on a parking lot designated as parkland.
“The primary purpose of this activity is a private purpose: to lease space and set up a shopping mall so people will spend money in the context of going to a sports event,” Justice Eugene Fahey said Tuesday. “Aren’t we required . . . that this particular development be approved by the Legislature?”
The oral arguments, which took place in a special session in White Plains, revolved around the 1961 law allowing the construction of Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows Park. The mall and movie theater, dubbed Willets West, would be built on the 30-acre site where the stadium once stood.
Assistant Solicitor General Anisha Dasgupta argued for the state that the proposed mall does have a public benefit because it will include public spaces and free attractions that go beyond a standard retail center. She noted a rooftop garden would be open to kids.
The Willets West project would bring a mall on space where Shea Stadium once stood.
City attorney Michael Pastor echoed that argument.
“This is a public attraction. . . It’s a large public space. There’s public programming there,” he said.
But those public benefits didn’t override the project’s overall purpose, which seemed to conflict with the law’s original intent to allow a ballpark in the park, Fahey said.
“We can clearly see the economic viability of the project,” he said. "(The law) was aiming to provide a home for the Mets . . . now how far can you go askew of that?”
Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Fahey suggested the project needed Legislative approval.
A decision is not expected for months.
The judges’ ruling will represent the closing of another chapter in the longstanding effort begun under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to overhaul Willets Point. In 2008 the city solicited proposals for developing the 61-acre area just west of the stadium known for car repair shops, a shortage of few paved roads and no sewers.
In 2012 the city selected Queens Development Group, which includes the Mets and the real estate firm Related Companies.
But a coalition of opponents led by State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Queens) sued, stalling the project as it wound its way through court. They contend the project requires approval of the Legislature.
This rendering shows the proposed Willets West project.
(Illustration courtesy of the Queens Development Group.)
“It is absolutely disgraceful of the city and state officials who are supposed to represent the people and protect parkland complicit in the developer’s proposed heist of public land. Sitting in that courtroom was difficult for me as I watched lawyers hired to protect the interest of the people argue against that very interest,” Avella said.
The city’s decision to argue in favor of the development represented a change of course for Mayor de Blasio. The Real Deal, a real estate magazine and website, noted that in August 2015, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen said she would not have approved the Bloomberg-era development.
But City Hall spokeswoman Melissa Grace told The Real Deal de Blasio came around because the proposed project will include 875 units of affordable housing to be built by 2022.