In Matter of Avella v. City of New York, 2017 NY Slip Op 04383 (June 6, 2017), the New York Court of Appeals reviewed a decision by the City of New York approving a proposal by Queens Development Group, LLC (“QDG”) which sought to construct a large-scale retail, restaurant and movie theater complex known as “Willets West,” on the portion of Flushing Meadows Park where Shea Stadium once stood – currently, the parking lot for Citi Field. The development was part of QDG’s larger redevelopment plan for Willets Point, a blighted area adjacent to Citi Field. QDG included Willets West in the development proposal under the theory that “the creation of a retail and entertainment center at Willets West w[ould] spur a critical perception change of Willets Point, establishing a sense of place and making it a destination where people want to live, work, and visit.”
After the City approved QDG’s proposal, a state senator, not-for-profit organizations, businesses, taxpayers, and users of Flushing Meadows Park brought an action seeking to enjoin the proposed development. They claimed that because the Willets West development was located within designated parkland, the public trust doctrine required legislative authorization, which had not been granted.
The Supreme Court, New York County, denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding. The Appellate Division, First Department, unanimously reversed and granted the petition to the extent of declaring that construction of Willets West on City parkland “without the authorization of the state legislature” violated the public trust doctrine, and enjoined further construction. The Court of Appeals granted QDG leave to appeal and affirmed the Appellate Division’s ruling.
The Court began its analysis by discussing the public trust doctrine from Brooklyn Park Commrs. v. Armstrong, 45 N.Y. 234 (1871) – a decision it issued nearly 150 years ago – where the Court held that, when a municipality has taken land “for the public use as a park,” it must hold that property “in trust for that purpose” and may not convey it without the sanction of the legislature. The Court also held that the legislature’s authorization to alienate land held in public trust must be “plainly conferred” by its “direct and specific approval.”
Applying these principles, the Court examined whether the State legislature had authorized construction at Willets West, on property that the petitioners contended was City parkland. To address that inquiry, the Court reviewed the legislation the State legislature had enacted in 1961 authorizing the development of a sports stadium on City parkland that came to be known as Shea Stadium. The Court ruled that, since a shopping mall and movie theater were not consistent with typical uses of a stadium, the statute did not authorize the Willets West development.
The Court also considered the legislative history of the statute and ruled that it too demonstrated that the legislature had only authorized the land to be rented for public stadium use, not for private business purposes.
The Court concluded that the legislative authorization to rent the stadium and its grounds to private parties could not “under our longstanding construction of the public trust doctrine, constitute legislative authorization to build a shopping mall or movie theater.”
Interestingly, the Court acknowledged that the remediation of Willets Point was “a laudable goal” and that QDG’s Willets West development would immensely benefit the people of New York City by transforming a blighted area into a new, vibrant community. Nonetheless, it pointed out that those contentions had no place in its consideration of whether the legislature had granted authorization for the Willets West development on City parkland that was held in the public trust. Of course, it concluded, the legislature was free to alienate all or part of the parkland for whatever purposes it were to see fit, provided that it does so through direct and specific legislation that expressly authorizes the desired alienation.
While the Court’s ruling does not impact the mixed-use redevelopment proposed for Willets East, QDG is reportedly evaluating its next steps for the project.