Willets Point Development Makes Gain With Highway Administration’s Approval

The Federal Highway Administration has removed a major obstacle to the Bloomberg administration’s plan to turn a waterlogged enclave of crumbling shops and sheds near Citi Field into a major development site.

In a decision long awaited by both supporters and opponents of the project, which is to cost about $3 billion, federal officials found that it would have “no significant effect on the human environment.”

In a March 22 letter to state officials, the highway administration said that a pair of proposed highway ramps would enhance traffic circulation between the development site, known as Willets Point, and the Van Wyck Expressway.

City officials have long sought to transform the 62-acre parcel, whose streets are lined with potholes and are often under water, into a new neighborhood of hotels, office buildings, housing and shops. But it was unclear whether the entire site could be developed without a favorable ruling by the highway authority.

Seth Pinsky, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, called the determination a “significant milestone” in the redevelopment of Willets Point.

But the decision was a major setback for local residents and business owners who oppose the project, citing environmental grounds and the city’s use of eminent domain to take the land from some 250 businesses.

Critics insisted that the already crowded highways near Willets Point would be brought to a halt by the traffic from the project, which would include up to 5,500 apartments. The highway ramps were designed to offset an estimated 80,000 vehicle trips coming from the development each day.

“This decision flies in the face of the city’s own traffic studies showing that the ramps would allow intolerable traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway,” said Michael B. Gerrard, a Columbia University law professor who is also representing property owners. “We will examine the documentation underlying this action and consider our legal options.”

Jake Bono, the owner of Bono Sawdust Supply at Willets Point, said he was “disheartened.” He wants to hold on to the business his grandfather opened in 1933. Mr. Bono called the entire public review process “a sham” that would end up taking private property from its rightful owners.

The city first approved the Willets Point project in 2008. But progress has been slow, so the city sought to develop the project in phases. It solicited proposals from 29 developers in 2011 for a 12.75-acre parcel closest to Citi Field, home of the Mets. It would entail 680,000 square feet of retail space, a hotel, parking and up to 400 apartments, a portion of which would be set aside for tenants who are poor or earn moderate incomes.

Real estate executives say that the city has narrowed the field to three developers, including Related Companies and its partner Sterling Equities, a real estate company formed by Fred Wilpon and Saul B. Katz, the owners of the Mets. But the executives and some city officials also say it has been difficult to make the project financially viable.

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