Wither Willets Point redevelopment: Queens Courier, Bayside NY, 3/29/07

By Pete Davis

For nearly 75 years three generations of the Bono family have been waking up every morning to go to work at their sawdust supply store on 127th Place in Corona, a few short blocks from Shea Stadium. Back in 1933, Jacob Bono scouted locations for the store and custom-built Bono Sawdust Supply Co. Inc. on the Corona Street because of its strategic location and easy access to the highways.

Now, the current owners, Jacob’s son Jack and grandson Jake are gearing up for a fight to save their property from a takeover by the city.

Bono Sawdust Supply Co. Inc. is one of more than 200 businesses located in the Willets Point corridor, commonly referred to as The Iron Triangle, which the city wants to acquire so it can begin a massive, private development project at the 75-acre site.

At a recent town hall meeting organized by City Councilmember Hiram Monserrate, representatives from the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) presented their vision for the site as a mixed-use facility complete with affordable housing, office space, a first class hotel, convention center, school and open space for the community to enjoy.

However, business owners, local representatives and EDC officials acknowledged that this is only the beginning of a long public approval process that is bound to have bumps in the road along the way.

The Willets Point area, which is home to approximately 250 businesses with nearly 225 in the auto-related industry, encompasses the area east of 126th Street right across from the new Citi Field, north of Roosevelt Avenue and south of Northern Boulevard going up against the Van Wyck Expressway on the East.

One of the biggest factors at the site concerns environmental problems. There is no sewer system, rampant illegal dumping, open petroleum spills and poor infrastructure.

“When you look at the spectrum of its history literally starting off as an ash dump, it could end up to be a national model for environmental stewardship and responsibility,” Bill Walsh, Vice President, Real Estate Development for EDC said.

However, some community members at the meeting criticized EDC officials for only recently taking an interest in the poor environmental conditions in the area now that they are looking to develop the region.

“Anything down here that comes along with them saying it is blight or a destroyed neighborhood is due to neglect from the city,” said Jake Bono. “The city caused all of this.”

Currently, the city is working on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which will be available to the public that would describe and analyze the effects a development would have on the environment.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, he began looking at the Flushing area as a prime spot for redevelopment and looked at development in the area in a three-step process: Reconnect downtown, revitalize the waterfront and redevelop Willets Point.

Two years later, the city formed an advisory committee, chaired by Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, to explore the development of Willets Point. They issued a Request For Expressions of Interest (RFEI) for the area, and in 2006, they issued a targeted Request For Proposals (RFP).

In the targeted RFPs, developers submitted plans that included more than 1 million square feet of retail and entertainment space, 500,000 square feet of office space, 5,500 units of mixed-income housing as well as community and public space that would make Willets Point a regional tourist destination.

“Hopefully, by creating this new destination at Willets Point, we can not only keep them [tourists] in Willets Point, but get them out in the surrounding communities in Flushing, Corona and Elmhurst,” Walsh said.

Currently, the city is in the process of reviewing eight proposals from prominent development groups for the site as well as soliciting input for the community before it goes back to the developers with more specific requests.

The new development would have tremendous economic impact creating nearly 20,000 construction jobs, 6,000 new permanent jobs and more than $1.5 billion in additional tax revenue for the city over the next 30 years, according to EDC officials.

City Councilmember John Liu, who represents the Flushing area near the proposed development site, said that while the development would generate billions of dollars in tax revenues for the city, which is EDC’s job, he wanted to make sure that the community’s input into the project was heard.

“For our community it’s not just about tax revenues,” Liu said. “It’s about making sure that we have the jobs, making sure affordable housing is part of the equation, more school seats for youngsters.”

During the town hall meeting, EDC officials announced that within the next few months they would be rolling out their comprehensive Business Assistance and Workforce Development Plan to all businesses that lie within the proposed area.

“It’s very important for us to work with these businesses as we move forward,” Walsh stressed.

The expected plan will set up a ‘one-stop shop’ for businesses and workers who have questions about what is happening in the Willets Point area as well as provide individual relocation assistance, financial and technical assistance to all parties in the area.

However, those plans did not satisfy some Willets Point business owners at the meeting including Jake Bono, who told EDC officials repeatedly that he was not interested in selling his land to the city and relocating his business.

“This is not about money,” Bono said. “This is about not being strong-armed out of something that is supposed to be protected by the Constitution and an abuse of eminent domain.”

That is where the eminent domain debate comes into play. There has been conjecture that if existing businesses do not reach an agreement to sell their property to the city, it would entertain the use of eminent domain.

According to New York State law, eminent domain is used to give due regard to the need to acquire property for public use as well as the legitimate interests of private property owners, local communities and the quality of the environment.

“Eminent domain is not a pleasant process that the government likes, nor certainly do those that are subject to the use of eminent domain,” Walsh said.

If the city could not reach an agreement with all the property owners to acquire their land, they would need to receive approval from the City Council to grant them the power to use eminent domain - something that Monserrate said is not a guarantee.

“I clearly am not a fan of eminent domain,” he said. “I have a lot of very grave concerns in particular when government enacts these policies that take away people’s property by compelling them to do so.”

Queens Courier, Bayside NY: http://www.queenscourier.com