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City open to ideas for Willets Pt. makeover

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But whatever happens, the city's Economic Development Corporation said Tuesday morning that Willets Point will not resemble an industrial wasteland once the agency is done with it."If you look at the Queens highway map, it almost looks like it was designed to bring people from all parts of the compass to Willets Point," Jeff Oakman, an EDC senior project manager, said at a Queens Chamber of Commerce breakfast held at the LaGuardia Marriott Tuesday. "Willets Point is really situated at the hub of recreational opportunities in Queens."Also known as the Iron Triangle, Willets Point has long been an urban blight of junkyards and dirt roads just across the water from downtown Flushing.It was not until October that the city officially began soliciting ideas from developers in order to begin the process of redeveloping the parcel. Those proposals are due March 18."The (request for ideas) is really wide open, we really don't want to shut off any ideas," said Bill Walsh, an EDC senior project manager. "We really want to hear from the public and private sectors about what people would be willing to invest in."The request for ideas was issued more than a decade after former Borough President Claire Shulman formally asked the city to invest in the property and replace the junkyards with a development that would generate more jobs for the region. A report from Shulman called "Willets Point: A New Direction" articulated the community's request for major changes in the Iron Triangle."The Flushing area has been the focus of the Bloomberg administration for over two years," Walsh said. "There is tremendous political support from Mayor Bloomberg and Borough President Helen Marshall."A task force of local community board representatives, elected officials and city agencies released a study in 2003 that called for development that would complement the neighboring Shea Stadium and Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The request for ideas expressly articulated that a football stadium would not be welcome there despite a grassroots lobbying effort to bring the Jets back to the Queens neighborhood where they once played.There was no mention of a football stadium at Tuesday's breakfast. Instead, EDC officials said the agency planned to review the ideas submitted in March with a committee chaired by Marshall in order to create a master plan for Willets Point."The redevelopment is clearly not without its challenges," Walsh said. Oakman said the EDC had already started testing the environmental quality of the soil there. Known for being part of the ash heap described in F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic "The Great Gatsby," Willets Point evolved from a landfill in the 1930s into a center for repair shops and garages in the 1950s.In the 1960s, the business owners formed the Willets Point Business Association and prevented the area's incorporation into the second World's Fair, according to Shulman's study. In the late 1980s, the group reached out to Shulman to obtain sewers, streets and sidewalks, which the area still lacks. She requested the EDC to conduct a study into the development of the Iron Triangle in the early 1990s.In 1991, the EDC released a report saying that a city investment into the infrastructure there would not be worthwhile unless the parcel was developed for non-industrial uses. Walsh and Oakman stood before the Queens Chamber of Commerce, nearly 14 years after that initial EDC study, to assure the group that Willets Point would one day become a destination that would be an asset to the neighboring communities and add recreation along the Flushing waterfront."That's our plan," Walsh said. "We know it's ambitious."Queens Chamber of Commerce Chairman Raymond Irrera said the group commissioned a study that showed Willets Point would be an ideal location for a hotel and conference center in Queens. Two of the three principal agencies that conducted the study, HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment Facilities Consulting in Chicago and HNTB Architecture in Boston, did not return calls for comment on their findings. The one that did, Hospitality and Consulting Services in Mineola, N.Y., declined to discuss the details of the report.Irrera was confident that the chamber's feasibility study would lead to the creation of a trade show center in Willets Point."This borough will get what it has been asking for," he said. Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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