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NYC officials, foes testify on Willets Point plans

Verena Dobnik, Associated Press

FILE- In this March 22, 2009 file photo,shows Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, in the Queens Borough of New York. Construction of a retail and entertainment center has been proposed on the west side of the stadium, in the space on the center left of the photo, where there is currently a large parking lot. On the east side of the stadium, a neighborhood of mostly auto body shops, there are plans for a mixture of housing, retail and open space develoipment. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

NEW YORK (AP) -- A $1 billion retail-and-entertainment mall planned for the site of what is currently a 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 the plan 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 could begin, the polluted, neglected neighborhood would undergo environmental testing and cleanup, beginning next year through 2015. Following the demolition of existing structures, construction would begin on the 23-acre swath of land.

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. Development over at least a decade also could include office space, a hotel and a school.

Other separate proposals for the area include expanding the National Tennis Center and building a 35,000-seat professional soccer stadium.