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Workers, city debate Willets Point’s future

More than 100 people packed into the auditorium at PS 127 for the fourth and likely the final town hall meeting on the redevelopment of Willets Point before the city's developmental vision for the 60-acre site begins the public approval process. The six-month process is expected to begin at the end of this month. The meeting, hosted by Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-East Elmhurst), was fiery at times with several business owners, tenants and workers at Willets Point angrily rebuking the city's claims that it has been actively working toward the future of the area while keeping its current occupants in mind. Under the city's plan, the project would include upwards of 5,500 residential housing units, 1.7 million square feet of retail space and a 400,000- square-foot convention center. Thomas McKnight, a project manager for the city's Economic Development Corporation, pointed to recently announced plans for LaGuardia Community College to develop a program that will retrain and place existing workers at the site in new jobs and said negotiations are progressing with the 14 businesses that own and operate on land in Willets Point."For some [land owners], we've gotten to a place where there's a site that we like, and we're actively working on negotiations to acquire that property," McKnight said.Jerry Antonacci, owner of Crown Containers, said the offers made thus far by the city to several land owners have amounted to "peanuts," while garage owner Andros Charibemoa called McKnight's claims "lies.""Empty offers! Empty offers!" Charibemoa shouted. "They never came to us about what is going on in the project. It's all lies." "If there is any business that wants to meet with us any time in the future, just let me know," McKnight responded. Michael Batista, an auto-worker at Willets Point, said the area would not be in the condition it is today if the city had invested money in infrastructure. Willets Point has no sanitary sewers or street lights and many of the roads are unpaved."We have been completely abandoned," Batista said.How the plan itself will be executed and what it specifically will include were also hot topics at the meeting. McKnight said though several specifics of the plan will not be set in stone until a developer is chosen, the framework of any development to occur will be contained by the creation of a special zoning district.The special zoning district - which is ultimately what the City Council will vote to approve or deny later this year - would dictate the type, size and placements of buildings and infrastructure within Willets Point. McKnight did not go into detail about what the plans for the district were. Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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