Court of Appeals Decision Puts Redevelopment of Shea Stadium Site on Hold

In Matter of Avella v City of New York (No. 54), previewed here, the Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether the plans to redevelop the blighted former Shea Stadium site as a retail mall and a movie theatre, known as Willets West, exceeds what the Legislature allowed when it approved the alienation of parkland to build the stadium in 1961.  Because the stadium was built in Flushing Meadows Park, the public trust doctrine required that the Legislature expressly authorize the non-park use of the land for a sports stadium, and any future development must similarly fall within the Legislature’s approval. And so this case came down to whether the Willets West redevelopment was authorized under the language of the Legislature’s 1961 approval.  

Particularly, section 18-118 of the New York City Administrative Code, which authorized the construction and use of Shea Stadium in the Park, provides:

Taking a textualist approach to this language, the majority, written by Judge Rowan Wilson, focuses on the authorization for the City to enter into contracts to allow people “to use, occupy or carry on activities in, the whole or any part of a stadium, with appurtenant grounds, parking areas and other facilities” (NYC Admin Code § 18-118[a] [emphasis added]).  That language allows the construction of a sports stadium and  facilities related to a stadium.  It does not encompass the Willets West proposal to build a retail mall and a movie theatre on the site, the majority held.

The Legislature’s authorization to use the park for a stadium and to use the stadium for certain enumerated purposes like “scholastic sports and athletic events,” “theatrical, musical or other entertainment presentations,” and “meetings, assemblages, conventions and exhibitions,” similarly does not expand the scope of the permitted alienation of the parkland to include any economic development that will help the public, the majority concluded.  

Indeed, the concerns of the parties and amici of the blighted nature of the property and the significant need for redevelopment were not lost on the majority.  Those concerns, however, could not change the reading of the plain language of the statute that limits the permitted alienation to a stadium and stadium-related facilities, the majority held.  Instead, the majority pointed out, the Willets West project may very well stil be able to proceed, but the developers and the City must first obtain an expanded authorization from the Legislature before any further steps in the redevelopment may be undertaken. 

In a dissent criticizing the majority for being overly protective of the public trust doctrine, Chief Judge DiFiore would have found the redevelopment plans authorized under section 18-118.  In a case such as this, the Chief Judge noted, where the Legislature has already approved the alienation of parkland, and the developer is merely seeking to change the intended use of the alienated land, the statute should be read broadly to encompass important economic development projects such as this one. 

History tells us that retail facilities often accompany sports stadiums, Chief Judge DiFiore noted, including during the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans:

Further, the Chief Judge explained, the Willets West proposal was well within the Legislature’s intended purposes of the Flushing Meadows alienation.  The Legislature didn’t limit the alienation of the parkland only for the stadium, Chief Judge Difiore would have held. Instead, it allowed use of the park “for any purpose or purposes which is of such a nature as to . . . provide for the benefit of, the people of the city,
recreation, entertainment, amusement, education, enlightenment, cultural development or betterment, and improvement of trade and
commerce” (id. § 18-118 [b]).
This broad authorization should have been enough.

As a result of the Court’s decision, the redevelopment plans for the Shea Stadium site have to be put on hold, while the developers and City convince enough legislators to approve yet another alienation of parkland to allow the retail mall and movie theatre to be built.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion can be found here.

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