Polluted Willets Point Divides New York City Government

NEW YORK, New York, April 22, 2008 (ENS) – The contaminated Willets Point area of Queens could become New York City’s first green neighborhood, but some of the area’s business owners object, and today they got the backing of about half of the New York City Council.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Friday that the Department of City Planning has started the seven-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure for the controversial Willets Point Redevelopment Plan.

The plan is designed to transform the environmentally contaminated 62-acre site in the heart of Queens into a mixed-use community with affordable housing, retail amenities, office space, parks, playgrounds, and a convention center and hotel, creating more than 6,000 permanent and 20,000 construction jobs.

Today, the Willets Point area hosts some 250 businesses – nearly 225 of them in the auto industry. It encompasses part of the Flushng area of Queens east of 126th Street behind Shea Stadium and right across from the new Citi Field baseball park, home of the New York Mets as of next season.

Environmental problems abound. There is no sewer system in the area, no sidewalks, lots of illegal dumping, open petroleum spills and poor infrastructure.

The Willets Point area of Queens is a flash point for New York’s redevelopment efforts. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

Mayor Bloomberg says the start of the public approval process “signals a major step forward in our five-borough plan to revitalize the waterfront, create mixed-use neighborhoods on once blighted or underutilized land, and protect existing neighborhoods from overdevelopment.”

“At Willets Point, our plan will transform what is now a highly contaminated area into a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood, with new housing, parks and thousands of jobs,” the mayor said.

Willets Point could become New York City’s first green neighborhood, participating in the United States Green Building Council’s LEED for Neighborhood Development pilot program. The mayor says the removal of the existing contamination will help clean the Flushing River.

But the Bloomberg administration is running into opposition from the City Council. Today, 29 council members who are critics of the plan, led by Hiram Monserrate, the most vocal opponent, sent a letter protesting the planned redevelopment to Deputy Mayor of Economic Development Robert Lieber.

“This plan is unacceptable, and we wish to inform you that without significant modifications, we will strongly oppose it, leaving no chance of it moving forward,” the council members write.

The Economic Development Corporation, EDC, is working with the businesses now located in Willets Point to identify sites for relocation and to develop Workforce Assistance Programs for the workers who will be impacted by the redevelopment plan.

But some Willets Point business owners have told EDC officials repeatedly that they are not interested in selling their land to the city and relocating.

“This is not about money,” Willets Point sawdust supplier Jake Bono told the local newspaper, the “Queens Courier.”

“This is about not being strong-armed out of something that is supposed to be protected by the Constitution and an abuse of eminent domain,” said Bono.

If the existing businesses do not reach an agreement to sell their property to the city, the administration could invoke the use of eminent domain.

By this inherent power the city can seize private property without the owner’s consent. The property can be taken either for government use or by delegation to third parties who will devote it to “public use” or in some cases, economic development.

The council members say in their letter that the Willets Point Redevelopment Plan, as it currently stands,”has no chance of surviving the public review process.”

But they hold out hope that with enough public discussion, Willets Point could be redeveloped. “It is in everyone’s interest for a successful and sustainable Willets Point,” they write to Deputy Mayor Lieber. “We look forward to working with you to make this a reality.”

The plan will be reviewed in a series of public hearings and will go before the local community boards, the borough president, the City Planning Commission and the City Council as part of the Uniform Land Use Review process.

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