Stories

Point of contention

Willets development expansion in Queens prompts new review and protests by holdout businesses

The city’s newly expanded redevelopment plan for Willets Point has revived a public review process closed four years ago — and reopened heated conflicts among businesses that stand to gain or lose from the transformation of the polluted district.

The divide was apparent at a public hearing last Thursday at P.S. 19 in Corona, part of an assessment of environmental impacts of a significantly bigger development.

A newly expanded Willets Point project seeks to turn a Citi Field parking lot into a mall.

“The project did not work at 60 acres — how can it work at 109 acres?” testified Len Scarola of Willets Point United, a group of local business owners that has long fought the city’s plans to acquire land for the redevelopment through eminent domain.

Supporters who attended included representatives from the Real Estate Board of New York, Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and the 32BJ Service Employees International Union, who highlighted the jobs to be created through the redevelopment process.

The city has projected that these will include 12,000 construction jobs and 7,100 permanent positions.

Joseph Perez, a spokesperson for 32BJ, and his fellow union members showed up at the meeting in matching T-shirts. Perez said it was important to create work opportunities at a time when the cost of living is so high.

“We need to do everything to create new jobs,” he said.

The project stands to transform this land of car repair shops and junkyards. Willets Point has long been plagued with petroleum contamination, and has also likely been poisoned by paints, cleaning solvents and automotive fluid, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

A deal announced this summer between the city and the development firms Related Companies and Sterling Equity extends the Willets Point development project to include what is now a parking area west of Citi Field, which would become a 1.4 million-square-foot entertainment, retail and parking complex called Willets West.

Willets West would join a 200-room hotel in the first phase of the project, followed by recreational, residential, office and retail space. New access ramps from the Van Wyck Expressway are designed to ease access to the district, which sits between Citi Field and Flushing Bay.

The environmental review will reassess expected impacts of the additions, including traffic and noise levels and displacement of local businesses; where necessary, the developers and city will have to address these issues.

Elements of the project will also have to take a second run through the city’s land use process, which includes an advisory vote from the local community board and borough president, followed by votes from the City Planning Commission and City Council.

A handful of businesses remain in the area, and will have to either be bought out by the city or forced out through eminent domain. Michael Gerrard, an attorney representing about 10 of these business owners, noted that despite the city’s assurances when the plan was up for review four years ago, relocation sites have still not been found for the businesses set to be displaced.

“It still kicks them out,” he said of the new proposal.

But few holdouts remain. David Quart, senior vice president of development for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, said at the meeting that the city has acquired about 95 percent of the property it needs for the redevelopment and is working with a real estate firm to help the business owners who will need to relocate. Gerrard said he was not sure whether any of his clients have yet been contacted with offers of relocation assistance.

Business owners aren’t the only ones whose space is threatened. Some of the property falls within Flushing Meadows Park, in an area already facing encroachment by proposed facilities for Major League Soccer and the United States Tennis Association. A community meeting earlier this month drew hundreds of Queens residents with concerns about the future of the park. The use of parkland for the Willets Point project has also raised legal questions over whether the city must alienate the land before using it for a non-park purpose.

Another unknown also hung over the hearing: the fate of more than 1,900 units of affordable housing promised by the city among the 5,500 apartments initially planned for the site, after community and advocacy groups pressed for their inclusion. The new plan puts construction of the Willets West area before full development of housing, pushing back the completion of the residential units to the final phase of construction. Those who negotiated the deal are worried about what the changed development plan means for the 2008 promises, according to Joseph McKellar, the executive director of Queens Congregations United for Action.

One attendee of the Thursday meeting brought along a sign that read, simply: “Affordable Housing — Yes. Mall — No.”

The development work at Willets Point is expected to proceed in three phases, beginning in 2014 and ending in 2032. By the time it is completed, the $3 billion project is expected to fill the peninsula with more than 5 million square feet of new development.

Last December, the city broke ground on a $50 million sewer upgrade to support the project — the only construction work done in Willets Point so far.

Add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>