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Portion of Former Shea Stadium Site May Not Be Converted To Retail And Other Non-Park Uses

The New York Court of Appeals held, the legislation permitting the development of Shea Stadium and related facilities on park land does not extend to development of retail businesses and other uses not related to a stadium. In Matter of Avella v. City of New York, the Court strictly construed the legislation permitting the stadium and found that the proposal, to construct a retail mall on the parking field that formerly held the stadium, would violate the public trust doctrine against alienation of parkland.

“Summarizing the longstanding history of the public trust doctrine in Friends of Van Cortlandt Park v City of New York, we explained that ‘our courts have time and again reaffirmed the principle that parkland is impressed with a public trust, requiring legislative approval before it can be alienated or used for an extended period for non-park purposes’ (95 NY2d 623, 630 [2001]).”

The area of New York City known as Willets Point was found to be in need of redevelopment. As part of a redevelopment plan, the developer proposed construction of a large-scale retail complex on a part of the parkland, which it labeld Willets West. The theory was 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.”

The Court noted the strict rule that, as the property at issue is parkland, it may not be alienated for other than park purposes without an act of the State Legislature.

“A municipality may, without legislative authorization, make improvements to a park that are consistent with its status as ‘a pleasure ground set apart for recreation of the public, to promote its health and enjoyment. It need not and should not be a mere field or open space’ …. Our observation that municipalities may improve parks without legislative authorization by, among other things, the construction of playing fields, is consistent with the statutory language and legislative history of the 1961 legislation at issue here.”

The City argued that the 1961 legislation permitting construction of the stadium, also permitted the proposed development of Willetts West.  However, the Court noted that not only was the language of the referenced legislation limiting, but the history of the legislation clearly demonstrated its limited intent. Citing a memorandum from the City seeking the adoption of the 1961 legislation, the Court quoted the following:

”This bill would confer upon the City the leasing and renting powers necessary to make the stadium available for professional, amateur and scholastic sports and athletic events and entertainment presentations, and the holding of meetings, conventions, exhibitions and events of civic, cultural and community interest. Such powers are essential to enable the City to cooperate in the establishment of a new National League baseball team in the City, and to operate the stadium as a revenue-producing project which, as is explained below, will be substantially self-sustaining”.

The Court concluded:

“Thus, the City sought legislative approval because rental — not construction — of the stadium constituted an alienation . Legislative authorization to rent Shea Stadium and its grounds to private parties cannot, under our longstanding construction of the public trust doctrine, constitute legislative authorization to build a shopping mall or movie theater.”

-Steven Silverberg