The World Series, Public Trust Doctrine and Small Businesses

2015-10-27-1445970443-8986510-7659012356_ed8854065d_o.jpgPhoto by Chung Chu

As fans in New York, Kansas City and beyond prepare for what promises to be an excellent World Series (and hopefully a victory for the Mets), focus naturally turns to the key question off the field: who is making money?

Earlier this week, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) estimated an economic impact of $11.6 million for each post-season game. Greg David, of Crain's, writes that the EDC estimate is exaggerated given that most fans attending the games are locals who would have spent money on something else. Whether or not these estimates are accurate, what many fans at Citi Field who cheer on their teams during the Series might be wondering is: what is going on across 126th Street?

Across from Citi Field lies an industrial neighborhood that was approved for redevelopment in 2013. However, the project plan hit a major barrier in July. A panel of appellate judges overturned a trial court judge's ruling permitting the construction of a mall on a section of parkland where Shea Stadium once stood. The ruling came down to the interpretation of a 1961 state law, written by Robert Moses, which "alienated" a section of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park so that Shea could be built. Alienation was required under a longstanding legal theory known as the public trust doctrine that requires the state act to affirmatively remove parkland from public use and convert to a different, non-parkland use. In this case, the judges held that the 1961 law permitting the stadium to be built did not permit construction of a shopping mall on mapped parkland.

Much was reported recently about the de Blasio administration's last minute decision not to join the developer -- Queens Development Group (a joint venture of the Related Companies and Sterling Equites, the Mets real estate arm) -- in appealing to New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals. The mayor, who announced last year an ambitious housing plan to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, wasn't convinced that enough residential units would be built for low-income New Yorkers. Key administration officials said that the plan as previously approved did not actually require affordable housing to be built, referring to a buy-out provision that permitted the developer to pay a fee in exchange for not building certain affordable residential units.

But housing is just one of many economic development concerns that was raised in the approval of the Willets Point redevelopment. Displacement of commercial tenant auto-repair shops, for instance, who were mostly evicted earlier this year, were largely ignored until a group of them initiated a lawsuit in 2014 similar to the case that is currently being appealed. At the time, I was part of a team that represented tenant businesses being displaced.

What hasn't been reported widely in this most recent news coverage is that a large number of auto repair shops previously operating on what is now city-owned land still aren't able to do business. Elsewhere in the city, owners of auto repair shops along Jerome Avenue in the Bronx are worried that they too will be forced out once a neighborhood rezoning occurs.

Housing demand, rising commercial rents, and changes in tastes will alter the blend of businesses operating in the city. In one extreme example, a fine-dining steakhouse now inhabits a building in Long Island City that formerly housed an auto repair shop. Whether or not these are positive results likely depends on personal preference, and political viewpoint. Regardless of one's viewpoint, vulnerable groups of low-wage workers and immigrant business owners are left in limbo by a stalled project.

For now, no one along the eastern side of 126th Street is making much money because of the World Series. We'll all have to wait and see whether that changes that in the near future, and how the public trust doctrine is interpreted to limit private development on public parks.