The Willets Point section of northern Queens, just across Flushing Bay from La Guardia Airport, has seen its share of transformations over the years – from a dump that F. Scott Fitzgerald called “The Valley of Ashes” in his classic 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” to the mecca of auto-repair shops and junkyards it is today. Over the years, the 75-acre area has been the subject of a number of redevelopment proposals as well; its location near Shea Stadium, Flushing Meadows Park and the number 7 train simply offers too much for enterprising developers and politicians to stay away.
The tradition continues. A new plan for redevelopment of the area unveiled in May – this time by Mayor Bloomberg – calls for the 250 industrial businesses and manufacturers who now occupy the land to submit to a mixed-use makeover. But last week, a number of local nonprofits and politicians – including the Pratt Center for Community Development, ACORN and Queens City Councilmembers Hiram Monserrate and Tony Avella – convened a meeting of area stakeholders in order to gather input for a community plan to influence the administration’s.
The area’s business people and others are concerned that if City Council and the Planning Commission use the mayor’s plan as an occasion to rezone the area, as they did in the case of downtown Brooklyn in 2004, there won’t be another opportunity for community involvement, even if it comes to using eminent domain to forcibly remove property owners. (For an explanation of this process, see City Limits Weekly #587, Seeking to Write a New Script for Eminent Domain Battles.)
“Once the mayor’s plan is certified” – the first stage of the city’s public review process – “City Council is limited in how much they can alter that plan,” explained Avella, who chairs the Council’s zoning committee. “So community involvement has to happen before certification. And to do that, you all need to get busy fast,” he told the several dozen participants taking part in the planning exercise.
Last summer, just as the Mets were announcing plans for a new baseball park across 126th Street, the Bloomberg administration accepted bids from private developers for a convention center, a hotel with up to 700 rooms, 5.5 million square feet of residential space, and enough retail to compose an advertised “regional entertainment destination.” A map of the area published this spring by the city’s economic development agency uses colored blocks to depict the proposed buildings: A purple rectangle representing the convention center occupies the space where the House of Spices is now; a cluster of orange polygons representing condos sits atop the present site of Crown Container Company, a rubbish removal service; and a turquoise triangle designating offices is perched across the street from Sambucci Bros. Auto Salvage.
Community leaders learned this spring, however, that this coming fall the city is going to push for the area to be rezoned from heavy industrial to commercial/residential before it picks a developer. That means the plan will go through the city’s public planning process (or ULURP – short for Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) before the mayor negotiates a contract with a developer to turn all those abstract blocks into concrete blueprints.
“It’s unusual for the city to make plans on privately owned property,” said Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center. “And it’s even more unusual for them to send plans that are still only at a conceptual stage through the ULURP process. No doubt, City Council would rather approve a plan that has been filled out by a developer so they can negotiate the details.”
Councilmember Monserrate has said that the community is going to follow Manhattanville’s lead – referring to Community Board 9’s counterproposal to Columbia University’s expansion plans in northern Manhattan – and demand community benefits as a condition of the rezoning. A community-driven “197-a plan” would be ideal, because councilmembers and commissioners would have to give it official weight when making planning decisions. But according to Lander there isn’t enough time for that. He said the Pratt Center has been working with Community Board 9 on the Manhattanville plan since 2002, and since the mayor has put the Willets Point proposal on the fast track for approval, neighborhood groups in this case can only hope to “develop their own principles and priorities for development on the site.”
“We’re not sure yet how much [that result] might look like a stand-alone community plan and how much it would be a set of changes to what has been proposed,” Lander said.
And, indeed, there may be a big problem looming: In the case of Willets Point, there appears to be more than just one concerned community.
At last week’s meeting, there were neighborhood groups from the nearby areas of Flushing and Corona who expressed concern about the size of a proposed school in the city’s plan. Others said they wanted to see 50 percent affordable housing onsite. Still others wanted assurances that the new jobs the project is expected to bring go to area residents. But to the 250 property and business owners who occupy the land now, and the 1,300 some workers employed by them, concerns like these rather miss the point. They don’t want the rezoning to happen at all, with or without community benefits.
“Our land is not for sale,” said Tom Mina, owner of Mina Supply, a sewer piping company, and former president of the Willets Point Business Association, “so this whole process, to my mind, is off the table.”
Jerry Antonacci, owner of Crown Container Co., a business that’s been in his family since 1959, seconded that thought: “All the city has done the last 40 years is take our money. They didn’t give us paved streets, sidewalks, sewers or services of any kind. And then they put up all those pictures to make the place look like Baghdad. You’re asking us what we think? We think the city should put in streets and sewers and let the area redevelop itself.”