The rallying cry of Willets Point landowners and labors has been “Neglect Not Blight” ever since the Bloomberg administration revealed its latest redevelopment plans for the neighborhood. The city wants to replace the 61-acre neighborhood of auto body shops, scrap yards, and small manufacturers—which the mayor and other officials consider blighted—with residences, retail, and a convention center.
Locals contend that if the neighborhood is blighted at all, it is because the city has allowed it to get that way, a point they hope to make at a public hearing tomorrow before the City Planning Commission. But the project’s critics fear they will have no time to be heard. Along with the Willets Point rezoning plan, the commission is taking up two massive and massively contentious plans: the rezonings of the East Village/Lower East Side and Hunter’s Point, both of which will be heard first.
Dan Feinstein, president of Feinstein Iron Works, said the Bloomberg administration is using the same tactics it has throughout the planning process to marginalize those who work or own land in Willets Point. “They put us third,” he said. “They put us last, as usual. They don’t want to review this, they want to ram it through. This is like Vladimir Putin moving the tanks into position on the Georgian border.”
Tomorrow’s hearing is one of the last stops for the three plans before they go to the City Council for a final vote. Previously, they passed before the local community boards and borough presidents, all of whom have advisory votes—as opposed to the binding vote of the commission—and supported the project.
However, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer gave his support conditionally to the East Village/Lower East Side plan saying that, in addition to more affordable housing and harassment and eviction protections, he wished the commission had separate hearings for each rezoning. “They are on a mission to get things done,” Stringer told Metro. A spokesman for Queens Borough President Helen Marshall told AN she had no issue with the arrangement.
Beyond having their grievances heard last, those wishing to speak out on Willets Point face a number of other issues. “Certainly the more hours the hearing goes on, the less alert the panel could be,” said Michael Gerard, counsel for the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association, a group representing local businesses and landowners. Gerard also said it can be difficult to organize witnesses, both experts and locals, given the uncertain start time for the hearing. Rachaele Raynoff, a spokesperson for the Department of City Planning, said the city’s 311 hotline will be set up to provide updates on the proceedings, but Gerard said this was far from an ideal solution.
Another issue is location. Unlike the recent hearings for the Manhattanville and 125th Street rezonings, which were held at City College campus in Harlem, tomorrow’s hearings will be held in Lower Manhattan, at the Tisch Auditorium at NYU Law School. “Washington Square is a long way from Willets Point,” Gerard said.
Eve Baron, director of planning at the Municipal Art Society, said the auditorium was at least a step up from the cramped quarters the commission usually resides in at its headquarters in the civic center. She also applauded the decision to have Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish translators on hand for those who needed them to testify. But she said the combined hearings still presented a major issue. “Call it two steps forward, one big step back,” she said.
The city maintains that it had no choice but to schedule the meetings together because of the constraints of the land review process, which carries a timeline for each step of the public review with strict deadlines, and that there has already been much public debate of the issues. “These are enormously important projects for the communities in which they exist,” Deputy Commissioner for Economic Development Robert Lieber, who is overseeing the two Queens projects, said in a statement. “Delaying these important public hearings will do nothing to increase public input, and having them on separate days will only make it more difficult for those who want to speak to more than one of them.”
Still, the commission certified the two Queens plans on April 21, three weeks before the certification of the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning on May 5. Asked why this was not taken into consideration, or why Willets Point, arguably the most contentious of the three plans, was being heard last, Raynoff declined to comment.
Whatever the reason, even those going first can sympathize. “If I was from the other two, I’d be concerned about speaking, too,” said Susan Stetzer, district manager for Manhattan Community Board 3, much of which will be affected by the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning. She also said the city promised her that her constituents would have as much time as they needed to speak. If previous rezonings are any indication, their testimony alone could take most of the day.
Whatever happens tomorrow—and you can expect a full report from AN, barring a midnight or later conclusion, as some already fear—it may not ultimately matter. The plan remains opposed by a majority in the City Council, with local representative Hiram Monserrate leading the fight from the start. Today, 31 members sent a letter [text] to the commission saying they are in “absolute opposition” to the Willets Point rezoning.
A spokesman for Monserrate, Wayne Mahlke, said the decision for a combined hearing is just the city’s attempt to strong arm the public. “The councilman is concerned that putting the three projects together is a way of pushing the project through without getting community input,” Mahlke said. “The city needs to correct the problems of the past and deal with these people who work here rather than pushing them aside once again.”