Imminent Destruction? New York (NY) Press, 7/26/06

Willets Point businesses fight off eminent domain

By Sushil Cheema

The scent of brown sugar and cinnamon saturates the air in the warehouse storage area at Fodera Foods. Sacks of different types of flour and containers of canned fruit, sprinkles and chocolate chips pile up to the ceiling. With closed eyes and a deep breath in, this could be a corner of Willy Wonka’s factory.

Along with his brothers and sisters, Tony Fodera runs this 75-year-old, family-owned business, a long-established supplier of bakery and deli products that serves establishments across NYC and the nation from H&H Bagles to General Mills. His pride in the family’s success shines through as he points out a photograph of his grandfather, the founder, on the wall and recites the date—September 26,1930 — on which it first opened. In the early 1970s, the operation moved from Brooklyn to its current location in Queens.

“The location is phenomenal,” Fodera says of being able to ship materials in and out easily by rail. “Coming from the area where we were this was like a breath of fresh air.”

But sometimes a breath of fresh air can bring bad tidings. Employees are cheerful and business is swift here at Fodera Foods. Outside the door, however — just as in Wonka’s world — there are a slew of problems needing attention. The city wants to redevelop this so-called “underdeveloped” area and is currently reviewing proposals submitted by developers, says Janel Patterson, a press agent for the Economic Development Corporation that oversees such projects. “We are working very closely with the business owners” in the area to reassure their staying power, Patterson says.

But the owners here say otherwise. And redevelopment is not what Fodera and the others here are in search of. Instead, they want improvements to conditions that the city has long left neglected.

Located in Willets Point, a corner of northern Queens, Fodera Foods is one of more than 200 businesses. Known as the “Iron Triangle,” most businesses here are auto-related, with one stall after another busy fixing mufflers or painting cars. Fodera is one of the few not related to the auto industry, but, like the others, it employs local residents from Queens. The employees at Fodera complain of the troubles they must endure in getting to work — for those without cars this includes walking through puddles of oil and watching out for electrical wires — but insist on staying because they like their employers.

All the businesses here are facing the threat of eminent domain. Patterson confirms the city has made a case that blight does in fact exist in the area due to an insufficient infrastructure ranging from a lack of storm drains to an abundance of pothole-ridden roads. But it is the city, Fodera says, that caused the blight.

“They never filled the potholes or resurfaced the roadways,” Fodera, exasperated, says. “There are no storm drains, very little police presence, no sidewalks. There is no infrastructure, no services.” When it comes to removing snow in the winter, Tully Construction Company, another local business and a major contributor to WTC site recovery, cleanup and maintenance, clears the streets — a job that would logically be the city’s.

“It’s purposeful neglect,” Fodera says of the city’s lack of attention to area’s needs and unwillingness to maintain it properly. “Condemnation is a harsh remedy for a problem we did not commit.”

“It is blighted because of the lack of infrastructure,” concedes councilman Hirma Monserrate, who represents much of Willets Point. “The city is primarily to blame for it.”

Fodera says the specter of eminent domain shut down plans for an outdoor freezer, backup generators and solar panels. In all, Fodera says he has chosen not to pursue $3 million-worth of projects that could have improved his business and made it more competitive. “My competitors have been able to do all these things, but we can’t!” the slightly shy Fodera exclaims. He adds, “I’m fighting to save my business. Not to relocate it, but to save it.”

“We have great reservations about having a process in place that lacks community input,” says Monserrate. “Eminent domain should not be used. We are opposed to that, particularly when talking about development and using corporate entities.”

In April, Dr. Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, released a study regarding land use in Willets Point and found that the area is a thriving area with a sound economy and that the auto-related focus would be hard to create elsewhere. As the auto-industries here are thriving and the manufacturers like Fodera Foods and the nearby House of Spice are also strong businesses, a commitment to keeping this part of Queens just as it is—but with improvements to the infrastructure—is understandable.

Fodera himself is not giving up the fight anytime soon. “I think this is going to become my life’s work,” Fodera says. “I’m enraged.”

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