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Willets Point Industry and Realty Association v. City of New York

November 25, 2009

WILLETS POINT INDUSTRY AND REALTY ASSOCIATION, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF NEW YORK, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Korman, J.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Willets Point is an industrially-zoned neighborhood in northern Queens, New York, consisting primarily of auto-related and waste management businesses. (Compl. Ex. C at 2.) The Willets Point area was originally a swamp. Surrounding areas began using it as a dumping site for ash and garbage in the nineteenth century. This practice continued until part of the landfill was converted into the World's Fair Grounds in 1939, at which point machine shops and garages started being built in the area. By 1950, several small factories, auto-related shops, garages, and storage areas cemented the industrial character of the area. (Compl. Ex. B at 7.)

The complaint in this case centers on the conceded fact that the City of New York (the "City") has invested little money in the infrastructure of this neighborhood. Though the area does have a network of storm sewers, they are largely in disrepair (Compl. Ex. B at 7), and the neighborhood entirely lacks a sanitary sewer system (Compl. Ex. A at 4). Streets in the neighborhood are not well-maintained, and often are unpaved or severely potholed (Compl. Ex. A at 32; Ex. B at 7), while most curbs and sidewalks in the neighborhood were either never constructed or have worn away entirely (Compl. Ex. A at 32). The neighborhood additionally suffers from a lack of functional fire hydrants or regular trash removal. (Compl. ¶¶ 51, 55, Ex. D photographs 4, 6, 7, 10, 10a, 14-14b, 26, 32, 32a, 34-37.)

The City has, from time to time, considered some development of the Willets Point neighborhood. As early as the 1960s, Robert Moses proposed turning Willets Point into a parking lot for Shea Stadium and the 1963-64 World's Fair Grounds. (Compl. ¶ 31, Ex. A at 15, Ex. B at 7.) The complaint alleges that this effort was successfully frustrated with the assistance of "[a] young lawyer named Mario Cuomo . . . leaving Willets Point in peace (albeit without infrastructure) until the early 1990s." (Compl. ¶ 31.) In 1991, apparently in response to a 1989 petition by a group of Willets Point businessmen, including certain plaintiffs, a study undertaken at the request of the Queens Borough President, Claire Shulman was completed. (Compl. ¶ 32.) This study, entitled the Willets Point Planning Study, found that "without an adequate sewer and street system . . . the future prospects for Willets Point will be limited. The area desperately needs a renewed infrastructure." (Compl. ¶ 60, Ex. A at 1.) The study observed that existing storm sewers "are clogged and ineffective for anything but the gentlest showers," and that in at least one section they had been "collapsed since 1961, and a 4 foot wide puddle covers much of [the street] in all seasons." (Compl. Ex. A at 28.) Moreover, the streets of Willets Point are "dilapidated and abused" (Compl. Ex. A at 32), and some were in "such poor condition that it is unclear if they were ever paved at all" (Compl. Ex. A at 32). A 1993 study, also commissioned by the Queens Borough President, and an April 2006 Willets Point Land Use Study completed by the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development, reported substantially the same infrastructure impediments. (See generally Compl. Exs. B, C.)

In 1999, certain members of the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association-an organization of local businesses-met with various representatives of the City's Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Transportation, Department of Sanitation, and the Office of the Mayor, again pleading for infrastructure improvements. (Id. ¶¶ 63-67.) Most recently, in 2002, the City created the Downtown Flushing Task Force ("Task Force"), a group of public officials and private representatives that the City organized to identify growth and improvement opportunities in the downtown Flushing and Willets Point area. The Task Force generated the Downtown Flushing Development Framework, a land use and economy planning strategy, which identified redevelopment goals for the Willets Point area including "creating a regional destination that would enhance economic growth in Downtown Flushing and Corona." Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement, Willets Point Development Plan ("FGEIS"), Sept. 12, 2008 at S-1, S-2, available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/oec/downloads/pdf/Willets_Point/FGEIS/00_Executive_Summary.pdf. Based on these guidelines, the City created the Willets Point Advisory Committee, chaired by the Queens Borough President, which developed the Willets Point Development Plan ("Plan").

The $3 billion Plan was unveiled by Mayor Bloomberg on May 1, 2007. See Anahad O'Connor & Terry Pristin, Bloomberg Unveils Plan to Redevelop Willets Point, N.Y. Times, May 1, 2007, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/01/nyregion/01cnd-willets.html. When implemented, it would "transform a largely underutilized site with substandard conditions and substantial environmental degradation into a lively, mixed-use, sustainable community and regional destination," which would contain "residential, retail, hotel, convention center, entertainment, commercial office, community facility, open space, and parking uses." FGEIS at S-1. The Plan contemplates various infrastructure improvements, including construction of new sanitary and stormwater sewers, a sanitary pump station, additional power lines, and new roadways and bicycle lanes. Id. at S-8, S-9. Moreover, under the Plan, the City is authorized to acquire property in Willets Point, including through the use of its power of eminent domain. Id. at S-4; Fernanda Santos, Willets Point Project Foes Reach Deal With the City, N.Y. Times, Nov. 12, 2008, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/13/nyregion/13willets.html. After much controversy, debate, and negotiation, the City Council overwhelmingly approved the Plan by a vote of 42 to 2. Fernanda Santos, Council Approves Queens Redevelopment Plans, N.Y. Times, Nov. 13, 2008, available at http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/13/council-approves-queens-redevelopment-plans.

The Plan provided the impetus for this lawsuit by plaintiffs, who "have thriving businesses that have been, in some cases, there for two generations," and who oppose the Plan because "[their businesses will be] destroyed by taking over [of] the property by eminent domain." (Hr'g Tr. 16:18-21, May 4, 2009.) The thrust of the complaint, however, is not based on the propriety of the City's condemnation of any property in Willets Point through the exercise of its power of eminent domain. Indeed, the complaint does not allege that the City has acquired any of plaintiffs' property in this way. Instead, the complaint alleges that the City violated plaintiffs' equal protection and due process rights by declining to provide services and infrastructure to Willets Point in an attempt to depress property values in the area and give the City an economic advantage when exercising its right of eminent domain to affect its current plan for redevelopment. (Compl. ¶ 80.)

Specifically, the plaintiffs have alleged that the defendants "have systematically deprived Willets Point of the vital infrastructure" (Compl. ¶ 3) in order to "driv[e] down the value of the existing businesses and their property, so that the City more easily can justify and finance the exercise of its powers of eminent domain" (Compl. ¶ 5) as part of a "forty-year effort to condemn Willets Point, destroy its businesses and deliver it to developers" (Compl. ¶ 31). This began during the 1960s, when businesses would have been forced to close under Robert Moses's plan to incorporate Willets Point into the 1963-64 World's Fair Grounds (Compl. ¶ 31, Ex. A at 15), continued through 1977 when Governor Hugh Carey organized a bid for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games which would have included building in the neighborhood (Compl. Ex. A at 33), and through the land use studies of the 1990s which proposed eminent domain as a means of revitalizing the neighborhood. Moreover, the plaintiffs allege that the City's newest plan to condemn the area, rezone it, and replace the existing businesses is only the latest reincarnation of the City's policy of neglecting the Willets Point neighborhood to drive down property values. (Compl. ¶ 33.) The City has moved to dismiss the complaint.

DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

In order to survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint must allege "enough facts to state a claim of relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). In conducting this analysis, the Supreme Court has suggested a two-pronged approach:

[A] court considering a motion to dismiss can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.

Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009). The Iqbal Court continued: "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 1949. This plausibility determination is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 1950. Factual allegations do not "plausibly give rise to an entitlement of relief" where those factual allegations, taken as true, are "merely consistent with a defendant's liability," id. at 1949, but are also "not only compatible with, but indeed . . . more likely explained by, lawful . . . behavior," id. at 1950-51. Thus, where there is an "obvious alternative explanation" that is more likely, the plaintiff's cause of action is not plausible and must be dismissed. Id. at 1951.

B. Equal Protection Cause of Action

1. Plausibility of Class-of-One Claim

Plaintiffs' first cause of action is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, which allegedly arose out of the City's malicious failure to provide municipal infrastructure to plaintiffs while "routinely provid[ing it] to similarly situated persons." (Compl. ¶ 85-86.) The root of plaintiffs' claims is that "[f]or decades, the [d]efendants . . . have waged a campaign of willful neglect against [p]laintiffs and other businesses in Willets Point," (id. at ¶ 2), by "systematically depriv[ing] Willets Point of the vital infrastructure that every neighborhood needs and to which each is entitled, including storm sewers, sanitary sewers, paved streets, gutters, fire hydrants, snow removal and trash removal" (id. at ¶ 3). Plaintiffs allege that the City has engaged in a "forty-year effort to condemn Willets Point, destroy its businesses and deliver it to developers" (id. at ¶ 31), while "provid[ing] other comparable manufacturing neighborhoods in the City with the infrastructure that they are denying to Willets Point" (id. at ¶ 74). Plaintiffs go on to allege that the City lack[s] a rational basis for discriminating against Willets Point and denying it this infrastructure. On information and belief, the City Defendants are doing so because, with illicit motivation and without rational basis:

(a) the City Defendants wish to depress Plaintiffs' property values and harm Plaintiffs' businesses in order to facilitate New York City's ...


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