Casino at Willets Point on the table

Casino at Willets Point on the table
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Issues like bail reform and mayoral control made headlines in recent weeks as Albany struggled to come to an agreement on the state’s budget for fiscal year 2023. But among the final details to be decided upon were the nuts and bolts of downstate casino license applications.

As the budget makes clear what will be required of an applicant, it seems that the looming possibility of a casino at Willets Point is very much on the table.

The fight for downstate casinos reached a milestone in 2013, when New York state voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow for seven casinos to be built statewide. Only three of those, however, could be built downstate, and they could not be built until 2023.

As the end date for that moratorium nears, discussions of where a casino could be built have increased. Though it has been broadly speculated that two of the full, commercial licenses will be awarded to existing casinos Empire City in Yonkers and Resorts World in South Ozone Park, the fate of the third license is an open question.

Meanwhile, the possibility of a casino going in northeast Queens has been a serious one since January 2021, when the state Gaming Commission noted it in a study. On top of that, Mets owner Steve Cohen was said to have been in conversation with casino company Las Vegas Sands as early as last fall (although a spokesperson for Cohen said no formal relationship has been established). At the same time, evidence of the third casino going in Manhattan or even Coney Island has been reported.

In December, the Chronicle reported that the Gaming Commission closed its call for requests for information regarding the possibility of a casino at Willets Point. Those RFIs garnered responses from numerous area civic leaders who, on the whole, vehemently objected to the idea. Still, the very existence of the RFIs indicated serious movement from the commission.

Fast forward to March: As state budget negotiations neared, lobbyists representing Las Vegas Sands and New Green Willets — a company that shares a Stamford address with Crown Mets LLC, Crown Intermediate LLC (both of which are linked to the Mets organization) and Point 72, Cohen’s financial firm — met with state and city lawmakers on several occasions, records show.

Among those legislators is state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), who, records show, met with former Gov. David Paterson, who has lobbied for Las Vegas Sands as its vice president since 2019, about “seeking expansion of downstate gaming casinos.” Though the date of that meeting is not listed, Paterson’s registration is dated March 28, just days before the state budget was due.

One lawmaker who has been in frequent discussion with New Green Willets and Las Vegas Sands is state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), who chairs the chamber’s Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee.

In several conversations with the Chronicle, Addabbo was clear that nothing is set in stone, and that numerous sites are on the table, Willets Point among them. But, as he said on more than one occasion, “Manhattan is the prize.”

A Willets Point casino would not be without a hitch, as a major redevelopment effort there has been in the works for years. “I don’t think the Gaming Commission or otherwise would be interested in interrupting anything that’s already in the process,” Addabbo said.

Specifically, 1,100 affordable housing units have been slated to go up at Willets Point since 2018, and the city’s environmental cleanup work on that began in June 2021.

Councilmember Francisco Moya (D-Corona), who represents Willets Point proper, has been very involved in the push for affordable housing in the area. Previously, he told the Chronicle, “We are opposed to anything that could be built that interferes with the two plans approved by the Willets Point task force — including the historic project that will bring the deepest levels of affordability with the 1,100 units of affordable housing.” Moya’s office did not respond to an additional request for comment by press time.

What is more, the land directly to the west of Citi Field has been suggested as the site of numerous projects over the years, including a soccer stadium, a shopping mall and even a casino, the latter of which was proposed by the Mets’ former owners, the Wilpon family. A 2017 New York State Court of Appeals case, however, ruled that the land could not be developed, as it is legally parkland. The sole exception to that is the Citi Field parking lot, made possible by a more than 60-year-old lease the Mets have with the city.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) made note of that when asked for his thoughts on a Willets Point casino. “We can’t lose any parkland — that’s a pivotal point for me,” he told the Chronicle. “Every inch of parkland that gets used needs to be made up somewhere else if that’s the proposal.”

Still, Addabbo did not seem to think the effort was a lost cause: “That’s going to be a very interesting area, because of ... the momentum that’s behind it.”

And indeed, there is momentum. New Green Willets has hired several lobbyists, including Jason Ortiz of Moonshot Strategies and Blue Suit Strategies (whom Crown Mets has worked with before), Hollis Public Affairs and strategic affairs firm Dickinson and Avella for the effort.

Asked for comment on whether the Cohens intend to build a casino at Willets Point, Moonshot referred the Chronicle to Tiffany Galvin-Cohen, a spokesperson for Cohen. She said, “For decades, New Yorkers have known that our city can get more out of the area around Citi Field. Steve has invested in the team, the ballpark, and the borough because he views owning the Mets as a civic responsibility. He will continue engaging stakeholders across Queens as the community thinks about how to revitalize the neighborhood.”

Addabbo is one of several lawmakers whom lobbyists have met with; per records submitted March 28, the gaming chair met with Dickinson and Avella in regard to “Willets Point development” — which is not in his district.

Willets Point is, however, within the jurisdiction of Moya, state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Elmhurst), Assemblymember Daniel Rosenthal (D-Flushing), Assemblyman Jeffery Aubry (D-Corona), Borough President Donovan Richards and Mayor Adams, all of whom have met with lobbyists representing New Green Willets in regard to “potential economic, housing and mass transportation development at the Willets Point neighborhood.” (City records show that Cohen himself met with Adams; the mayor has since come out in favor of “expanding downstate gaming options”).

Asked about whether a casino was discussed and if she’d support one at Willets Point, Ramos said, “I like to meet with anyone interested in serving my neighbors. Whether we agree on what is in my community’s best interests is often another story. At this stage, I’m listening and learning before I report back to my neighbors. I like public processes and only by following through can I know definitively that I won’t be able to support any application whose return to Queens doesn’t far outweigh its cost.”

Richards’ office shared similar thoughts. “As anyone who approaches Borough President Richards to discuss the future of Queens will learn, conversations will always center around responsible growth, including at Willets Point, where he was proud to break ground last summer on a critical environmental cleanup project allowing for later development at the site,” a spokesperson for Richards said. “The Borough President is also 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.” Rosenthal and Aubry could not be reached for comment.

Addabbo and Gianaris were also involved in those discussions. All of those electeds met with New Green Willets lobbyists about A9009/S8008, the section of the state budget which initially included stipulations about downstate casino licenses.

The final version of the state budget notes that, among other things, that a casino license applicant must submit its construction plan for the area and the surrounding infrastructure with its application. Further, it says that the Gaming Commission will determine the stage of construction at which the facility may open — but the permanent casino area and other non-gaming amenities must be complete.

Meanwhile, among the qualifications for an application to be approved are how it would impact the area economically and how accessible the site’s location is. It also considers whether the applicant “demonstrat[es] the ability to fully finance the gaming facility.”

But Las Vegas Sands — a Queens Chamber of Commerce member, according to President and CEO Tom Grech — is not turned off by any of those requirements: According to Addabbo, the company has told the Gaming Commission that it is “willing to pay the state up front.” Plus, the company said in its RFI response that it was “prepared to spend considerable resources on the site design and entitlement prior to the determination of licensing by the state.”

Public opinion would be taken into account. The budget says that, upon an application’s submission, a community advisory committee would be established, its six members being appointed by the district’s councilmember, state senator and assemblymember, the borough president and the mayor. The committee’s meetings would be open to the public. The application would require a two-thirds majority in favor to go forward, after which it would be determined whether the proposal follows state and local zoning regulations. All of those proposed in New York City are subject to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the determination of which the mayor cannot override.

Even as other locations have been rumored as possible sites, Willets Point is by no means off the table. Asked for whether he thinks a Willets Point casino is likely, Grech told the Chronicle, “I think it’s quite possible.”