This article was originally published by The CITY on April 5
The New York Mets’ billionaire owner has been pushing City Hall for development around his Queens ballpark, possibly including a casino as the state mulls expanding licenses, according to city and state lobbying records.
Steve Cohen, who bought the team for $2.4 billion in the fall of 2020, hosted Mayor Eric Adams and other top City Hall officials at Citi Field this January, where he and others presented ideas for Willets Point, the 61-acre piece of land across the street, THE CITY has learned.
Portions of the neighborhood — known for its hamlet of auto-body shops and junkyards and decades of failed redevelopment plans — are currently getting an environmental clean-up as part of a plan from 2013.
The effort is expected to bring 1,100 affordable apartments and a new school by the end of the decade. Of the 61 acres of land, 23 acres are currently owned by the city. The rest of the land is privately owned.
Cohen’s alleged desire for a casino near Citi Field first made headlines last fall, and it was reported in February that casino operators were eyeing the Flushing ballpark as one of a handful of sites in New York City where they’d like to add slot machines.
In the meeting with top city officials, Cohen discussed potential support for a casino in Citi Field’s parking lot, officials told THE CITY. Cohen’s people also discussed broader plans to beautify the area around the stadium, including potentially adding hiking trails along Flushing Creek.
“For decades, New Yorkers have known that our city can get more out of the area around Citi Field,” Tiffany Galvin-Cohen, a (unrelated) spokesperson for Cohen, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Steve has invested in the team, the ballpark, and the borough because he views owning the Mets as a civic responsibility,” she added. “He will continue engaging stakeholders across Queens as the community thinks about how to revitalize the neighborhood.”
The Amazins’ owner has long been courting favor with the new mayor — a vocal Mets fan who caught the first pitch from his son at a game in July. Cohen donated $2 million last year to a political-action committee that supported Adams’ campaign. Mets officials also lobbied the mayor over the vaccine mandate for professional athletes, which was lifted last month.
“As the mayor has said many times, he is willing to talk to anyone who is committed to boosting our economy and helping our city recover from COVID-19,” Charles Lutvak, a spokesperson for Adams, said in a statement. “He is willing to consider any idea that would help achieve that goal.”
New Green Deal
New Green Willets, a Delaware-based limited-liability company, was formed in January to press city and state officials about the issue, lobbying records show.
NGW is linked to the Stamford, Conn., office of Point72, a financial firm owned by Cohen. City lobbying records list Vincent Tortorella, the general counsel of Point 72, as the main principal of the New Green group.
The company then retained Moonshot Strategies and Hollis Public Affairs to lobby City Hall officials and other electeds, records show. New Green Willets has paid each organization $20,000 since January.
Their meetings’ focus was on a measure put forth by Gov. Kathy Hochul in her executive budget proposal that includes, among many other things, a provision to expand gaming licenses across the state to allow for more casinos, the records show.
Cohen’s lobbyists also focused on “determination regarding real property, potential economic development, housing and mass transportation development at Willets Point,” records show.
Julissa Ferrerras-Copeland, the former City Council member for the area until 2017 and helped craft the 2013 Willets Point plan, is a partner at Hollis. She declined to comment on the record for this article.
The lobbyists also met with Councilmember Francisco Moya, who currently represents the area, and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards. Both play crucial roles in any development around the area, since their support would likely be needed for land-use or zoning changes.
In a statement to THE CITY Tuesday, Richards said he was “adamant that development projects slated for any location within The World’s Borough include both a robust community engagement process and tangible community deliverables that benefit the surrounding neighborhood.”
Development at both Willets Point and the parking lot at Citi Field — which is technically designated as parkland — faces multiple hurdles.
Previous efforts to build everything from a domed football stadium to parking for the 1964-1965 World’s Fair have all failed.
Queens Development Group, a joint-venture between Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ Related Companies and Sterling Equities, the real estate company owned by the Wilpon family (who used to own the Mets) and Saul Katz (an accused Bernie Madoff co-conspirator and in-law to the Wilpons), just got the green-light to start work on a portion of the Willets Point land last May.
They broke ground on the environmental clean up efforts in June, and are scheduled to be finished by 2023, according to the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the project.
Construction on the affordable housing and the new school is set to begin in 2024.
A spokesperson for Queens Development Group declined to comment.
Part of the original plan included building a mall on one of Citi Field’s parking lots — but it was shot down in 2015 by a state Appellate Division judge, who said it violated a state law that protected public park land.
At the time, Mayor Bill de Blasio and other City Hall officials withdrew their support of the developers’ appeal, taking issue with the timeline to build the housing.
In order to build a casino or anything else on the parking lot, Cohen would need state authorization under the Public Trust Doctrine, which requires parks and other natural land be preserved for the public.
Similarly, the city in 2017 had to get state approval to build a pre-K next to the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
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