Willets Point master plan unveiled: Queens Courier, Bayside NY, 5/3/07

By Pete Davis

Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the city’s most specific plans to date to transform the 60-acre Willets Point neighborhood into a vibrant, mixed-use destination, replete with retail shops and restaurants, office space, housing, a school, hotel and convention center.

After decades of talk concerning redeveloping the Willets Point area known to many as the “Iron Triangle,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city officials unveiled comprehensive plans that would transform the area into a dynamic mixed-use facility.

The current 60-acre site, which Bloomberg described as blighted and environmentally contaminated, would undergo a transformation complete with more than 1 million square feet of retail shops and restaurants, 500,000 square feet of office space, 5,500 units of housing, a school, hotel and convention center.

“We believe that out of the ashes can rise New York City’s next great neighborhood,” Bloomberg told officials at the Queens Museum of Art on Tuesday, May 1 before public scoping hearings to review the environmental impacts of the project took place later that day.

During the unveiling of the master plans, Bloomberg also spoke about the 20,000 construction jobs, 6,100 permanent jobs and more than $1.5 billion in revenue it would generate for the city during the next 30 years.

One of the chief components of the project before it can go forward centers around the city acquiring all of the land inside the project’s boundaries from the private owners.

City officials have said they are prepared to meet with the current landowners to discuss purchasing the land; and they are in the process of finalizing a business relocation and assistance program they will offer to all of the current businesses in the area.

However, the project’s proposal is being met with some objections, primarily by the 250 businesses (about 225 are in the auto-body industry) and workers that currently occupy the area.

Hundreds of Willets Point workers and business owners donned white t-shirts that read ‘Willets Point, It’s Our Land,’ and chanted ‘Heck no, we won’t go,’ outside of the Flushing Library on Tuesday evening during the public hearing. In addition, people packed the auditorium downstairs pleading with city officials to leave their land alone and find another place for the project.

“I think he’s [Bloomberg] truthful in the way he said he is going to go forward with the project, but I don’t believe for a second that he’s going to treat the business owners fairly,” said Jerry Antonacci, who has owned Crown Container, a 25,000 square-foot waste transfer and hauling station in Willets Point with his brother for 35 years.

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, who has been a staunch proponent of redeveloping the Willets Point area during her tenure, stressed that neglecting the businesses in the area would not occur.

“A crucial component of the plan unveiled today is a business relocation program that includes equitable, financial and technical assistance and job training support,” Borough President Marshall said. “As we move ahead we must not leave this behind.”

In addition, Bob Lieber, President of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said that his office is working with the city’s Department of Small Business Services to accommodate as many of the 250 businesses as possible in relocating.

However, if the city does not reach agreements with all of the landowners, Bloomberg maintained he would not let a few holdouts stand in the way of the project moving forward - raising the specter of 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.

“My hope would be that we wouldn’t have to use eminent domain at all,” Bloomberg said. “The city is going to try to do everything it can to come to an economic agreement where it’s in everybody’s interest, and it would be a win-win.”

Although the plans were the most comprehensive regarding the project to date, there are many public approval steps before the city chooses a developer from the eight private developers that have already submitted proposals.

The timeline for the city to choose a developer is currently slated for the summer of 2008, and within the next two years, environmental cleanup at the site would commence putting an end to business owners’ hopes of staying at their current location.

“I feel like I’ve been given a death sentence, and I’m waiting for the guy to come and take me to be executed,” Antonacci said. “We’re up against the city. We’re going to fight as best as we can, but I think in the long run, we all know we’re through.”

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