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Court Delivers Legal Blow To Willets Point Development Plan

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Plans to transform the area around Citi Field are now on hold following a major legal blow to the developer.

As CBS2's Carolyn Gusoff reports, the Willets Point Development, first proposed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, suffered what could be a fatal setback.

Citi Field's parking lot sits on a site that was designated as park land in 1961 when Shea Stadium stood there. Now, New York State's highest court has tossed a curve ball into a planned mega mall there.

The vision was in the works for years. But the court ruled the city has no authority to give away 47 acres of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park for a mall.

"It's a great decision for the city's tax payers. The former mayor and the city council tried to give a billion dollars worth of city park land away to a private developer, which is completely irresponsible," President of New York City Park Advocates Geoffrey Croft said.

The plan was a heist of public land, according to New York State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Queens).

"This sends a very strong message, whether it's a municipality or a developer, that you cannot just take park land away from the public," he said.

The $3 billion development was meant to transform Willets Point, replacing crumbling auto chop shops with a mall, affordable housing, a hotel and offices. The auto shop owners were evicted, including Arturo Olaya, who now fixes car seats out of a van.

"With this kind of situation, I cannot pay the rent. I cannot survive," he said.

This is a win, say workers in the shadow of Citi Field, against developers, including the New York Mets owners.

"These people have been here when this area was nothing. And now you're developing it and they get tossed to the side," one man said. "So that's not fair."

What now? A spokesperson for the developer, Queens Development Group, said it is "disappointed with the court's decision, which further delays a project that will reverse 100 years of pollution, create thousands of good-paying jobs, and turn vacant lots into a vibrant community. At a time when Queens needs private investment more than ever, the court's decision disregards the City Council, the local community board and other stakeholders who have already approved the Willets West plan. We are in the process of evaluating our next steps."

Mayor Bill de Blasio opposes a mall on the property, but said, "our priorities remain the same: jumpstarting the affordable housing, schools, libraries, retail and open space this community was promised. This ruling does not alter the City's ability to move ahead with a dynamic mixed-use project on Willets East. We'll determine the best path forward with stakeholders in the coming weeks."

The developer said it is evaluating its next steps.

The court made it clear only the state legislature can give away park acres through a specific change in the law.

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