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State senator mediates meet between city, biz owners

Negotiations between the city and Willets Point business owners appear to have turned a corner after a meeting organized by an unlikely mediator: state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans).

Close to a dozen members of the Willets Point Business and Realty Association — who collectively own nearly 50 percent of the land in the Iron Triangle — met with officials from the city Economic Development Corporation earlier this month at Smith's office in an effort to smooth over tensions that have mounted between the groups over the last several months.

"They actually reached out to me. They felt that they were not being heard," Smith said. "I indicated as someone in the state government that I would be willing to have the state be helpful wherever we could help out. We need to all be in this together."

The city is seeking to purchase all of the land in the 62-acre industrial enclave and turn it into a sprawling residential and commercial complex.

"I think we're at a place where we need to be making the real estate we have more productive. We need to put New York back to work," Smith said. "At the same time, we need to be fair to all involved."

Negotiations with several of the business owners thus far have been bristly at times, but members of WPIRA called the Smith meeting the most productive they have had in months.

"Basically, Smith said you can't just negotiate through the press," said Dan Feinstein, owner of Feinstein Iron Works. "Right after that meeting, the city suddenly became more proactive. Some of us hadn't heard from them at all and now a lot of us have, so we'll see."

The weeks following the productive meeting have already produced one relocation agreement. In mid-August, the owners of Crown Container Inc., some of the most outspoken critics of the city's negotiations with business owners in recent months, signed an agreement to relocate their business from Willets Point to Maspeth pending the City Council's approval of the project.

"That's one example, and that's all transpired since Sen. Smith threw his hat into the ring," said Tom Mina, owner of T. Mina Building Supply. "Ever since the Senate minority leader has been in the picture, it seems like the city has been more willing to extend an olive branch."

Mina cautioned, however, that the recent upturn is not a panacea for all of the issues surrounding the project or negotiations.

"I guess the sentiment is that we're cautiously optimistic," Mina said. "Until each and every one of the people have relocation plans or something in concrete from the city of New York, I can't say we're totally optimistic."

The City Council is expected to vote on the city's redevelopment plan Nov. 23.

"We've never said we're going to be an obstacle to development — we just want to be part of it," Feinstein said. "We're hoping finally that they're hearing that."

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, ext. 138.

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