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Willets Points: At the crossroads

For five decades, Daniel Sambucci Sr. has gone to work at his auto salvage business in Willets Point.

And for five decades, he has heard of plans to put him out of business.

In the early 1960s, as he watched the construction of Shea Stadium across the street, he heard Robert Moses suggest the land be used for the World’s Fair.

In the 1980s, he heard Donald Trump propose a football stadium.

In the 1990s, he heard then-Queens Borough President Claire Shulman seek the condemnation of the land.

“You know, some nights I don’t sleep,” said the 71-year-old founder of Sambucci Brothers Inc. “I want to know: Are they coming?”

The Sambucci business is at the corner of 126th Street and 36th Avenue, part of the 55-acre Willets Point. Known as the Iron Triangle, Willets Point is home to dozens of scrap metal and auto salvage businesses as well as chop shops. Located along Flushing Bay and the Flushing River, within walking distance of Shea Stadium and Flushing Meadows Corona Park and less than a mile from LaGuardia Airport and downtown Flushing, Willets Point and has been called a blight on the area by many Queens politicians.

Still searching for an answer, Sambucci again found the future of his business in doubt last year. After Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called for the condemnation of the land in his January 2001 State of the City address, Shulman filed for a declaration of urban renewal status in order to evict the businesses from the site.

In October, an international conference on Willets Point organized by the Toronto-based Waterfront Regeneration Trust, a non-profit environmental group interested in the development of waterfronts, pointed the plan in a new direction. But still, no local, state or federal agency has taken the reins on the project.

Willets Point was a “diamond in the rough,” conference attendees concluded in October. But instead of looking to create something grand, such as a stadium or a monument, the conference turned to Flushing’s model of downtown development as inspiration. Conference attendees proposed designer outlet shops, restaurants, a hotel and a film studio as well as a park along the waterfront.

But now, under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, and the weight of a budget crisis, the city must decide whether such elaborate visions of Willets Point will become a reality or quietly fade into yet another forgotten dream.

In the meantime, Daniel Sambucci Sr. can get no sleep.

A CHANGE OF PLAN

The city already has shifted the direction of its plans in the aftermath of the October conference.

The city department of Housing, Preservation and Development, one of the major participants in the October conference, is no longer seeking urban renewal status for the area.

“We do not envision the city urban renewal plan for Willets Point,” said Carol Abrams, a spokeswoman for HPD. “The first step is to create a development corporation supported by the state that would oversee the implementation of the revitalization plan for Willets Point.”

Shulman said in a telephone interview this week that after the conference, she decided to go through the state rather than the city, which twice tried and failed to condemn Willets Point under her administration.

“The state has greater powers of condemnation,” she said.

Dan Andrews, a spokesman for Marshall, said the borough president agrees with Abrams.

“We’re looking for what is going to work in the most efficient way,” said Andrews, “not going through the city or the state, but doing a partnership.”

Abrams said it was up to the Empire State Development Corporation, which previously aided in the Queens West residential and commercial development for Long Island City, to fund the formation of an area-based development corporation to work on the site.

The change in plans has surprised even some of the organizations involved in efforts to develop Willets Point.

“I’m in shock,” said Marilyn Bitterman, district manager of Community Board 7, when she learned that the city was not seeking urban renewal status.

Bitterman, whose board covers Willets Point, said she had always heard that declaring Willets Point an urban renewal area was the first step toward its development.

Meanwhile Eric Mangan, a spokesman for Empire State Development Corporation, said the agency was “not actively” working on Willets Point.

Instead, Mangan said his agency was waiting for the city to discuss plans with the local community.

“It takes a little while to get the ducks in the row,” said Shulman.

THE CHALLENGE AHEAD

If the development of Willets Point begins, the city and state will face several challenges while working on the site.

Its dozens of business owners certainly have no intention of leaving the site. Carmine Agnello, the estranged son-in-law of Gambino family mob boss John Gotti, is now serving nine years in jail for racketeering, extortion and arson at his $30 million-a-year scrap metal business in Willets Point.

Shulman has contended that Agnello’s business was one of many illegal operations in Willets Point. As borough president, she had said she would help relocate the handful of businesses she considered legitimate.

The site itself also poses problems. The Van Wyck and Whitestone expressways meet at Willets Point in a complicated array of off-ramps that take up a significant part of the 55 acres. Surrounded by Flushing Bay and the Flushing River, the area has a high water table, which could hamper any underground construction. The area also has no sewer system, which Shulman estimated would cost $20 million to install.

Moreover, a waste transfer station opened at Willets Point along Flushing Bay last year. Under contract with Tully Environmental until 2005, the city would have to find another location for the 500 tons of trash that arrive daily.

THE DEVELOPER’S PERSPECTIVE

With all these difficulties, Wellington Chen, a Flushing developer with the firm TDC, has his reservations about the project.

“If you go down there and you look at that thing, would you put a dime on it?” he asked. “Would you risk that?”

Nevertheless, Chen, who attended the October conference, said he wanted to see Willets Point developed. Because it is close to LaGuardia, Shea and the USTA National Tennis Center, Willets Point is under an international spotlight, said Chen.

Although the city’s proposal for a new stadium for the Mets is in Shea’s parking lot and technically across the street from Willets Point, Chen suggested that the two plans were tied to each other.

Chen, who said he was frustrated with the lack of job creation in the city, said development in the area could lead to 20,000 new jobs.

“To attract a quality work force, you need a quality work environment,” said Chen.

PERMANENT HOLDING PATTERN

Sammy Sambucci, Daniel Sr.’s nephew who works with Daniel Sr.’s son, Daniel Jr., said he has begun to feel the effects on his auto salvage business from the city’s renewed interest in Willets Point.

“The city targets the area at least once or twice a month,” said Sammy Sambucci, explaining that police come to periodically issue summonses to area businesses. “When the new year started, they did that. [Business] has been dead since.”

Sammy Sambucci, 32, said the city never came to discuss the development of Willets Point with his business. He added that he and his family work hard to keep the lot clean, saying he started hosing down the property at the age of 11.

While the Sambuccis and Chen are divided over the fate of Willets Point, they do have a common ground. Having been threatened with eviction for many years, the Sambuccis said they are afraid to make improvements on the lot as they wait for the city to make a decision.

Meanwhile, Chen said he is also eager for the city to make a decision, so that he can better understand the direction of Flushing’s development.

Will shopping, movies and restauarants come to Willets Point?

“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” said Chen.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.

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Reader Feedback

Luke from Orem says:
Sounds like a risky project, I wonder what is going to happen in the near future.

Luke | http://salkamhealth.com/mobility.html
Jan. 23, 6:52 pm
Jake from State Farm says:
I think the home improvement now a days is incredible. My brother flips houses for a living and he is amazing. He run down house and turns them into houses that are nicer than mine.

Aaron Carter | http://professional-siding.com/siding.php
May 8, 1:12 pm

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