When a pothole forms in Willets Point, business owners there don’t call 311; they call an asphalt supply company. “We have to fix it ourselves,” said Jerry Antonacci, owner of Crown Container Company. “Going back 30, 40 years, the city just hasn’t provided services for us.”
The 61-acre site houses about 250 businesses, most of them auto body shops. Streets are rough, the soil is polluted (the land used to be an ash dump), but for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, it is a promising site for development. On April 21, the city certified a rezoning proposal for the area, which is the first step toward realizing a LEED-rated development plan that includes a convention center, hotel, parks, 5,500 units of housing, and 500,000 square feet of office space. This initiated the public review phase that could last for seven months. The same day, 29 members of the council came out against the plan in political opposition.
But while the mayor calls the area blighted, locals call it neglected. Last month, the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association (WPIRA), a group of the ten biggest businesses and landowners there, sued the city, demanding they fix the area’s broken infrastructure and compensate property holders for the hit to their land values.
The city wants to move now—and has not ruled out the use of eminent domain—but landowners are convinced they’d get much better deals on their turf if only the properties were more attractive. “Put in the infrastructure, and development will take care of itself,” said Councilman Tony Avella, who, with hundreds of others, protested the development near Shea Stadium on the Mets opening day.
But City Hall wants a hand in the plans. Announcing the development last May, Mayor Bloomberg explained that the city’s goal is to turn the zone into “the city’s first truly green community, with buildings that use the latest energy-efficient technology and parks and open spaces that give New Yorkers new places to play.” The NYCEDC also promises 5,000 new permanent jobs, and relocation assistance to businesses already there. But that’s little comfort to locals.
“These are pie-in-the-sky ideas,” said Avella. Relocating the businesses is impossible, he says, because “it’s the only zoning of its kind in Queens.” Antonacci said relocation means he shuts down for good. “I run a rubbish hauling station,” he said, “and to relocate me, you have to promise you’ll pull some strings to get me the permits I need because they don’t issue these kinds of permits anymore.”
“The city’s intent on developing this area, and eminent domain continues to be a very serious threat,” said Michael Gerard, a lawyer for the WPIRA. For Antonacci, the city’s just not playing nice. “It’s their way or no way,” he said, referring to eminent domain’s intimidation factor. “They’ve got that gun and they put it on the table. How are you going to negotiate with that?”