Willets businesses get eminent domain docs

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The nine Willets Point business owners in the first phase of a $3 billion redevelopment plan who have not signed purchase agreements with the city received eminent domain notices from the city Economic Development Corp. Monday.

The EDC sent out the documents as an early salvo in what is poised to be a battle that could potentially end with property owners losing their land and came on the heels of a protest by Willets Point business owners led by lobbyist Richard Lipsky and state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside).

Opponents of the eminent domain process protested last Thursday that the city was about to embark on a move they described as premature and egregious by sending out the letters to the 12 percent of business owners in the first phase of the 62-acre project who have not agreed to sell their land. The first phase contains 20 acres bounded roughly by 126th and 127th streets and 35th and Roosevelt avenues.

“I’m hoping we can defeat the project,” Ralph Paterno, owner of Empire Commercial Corp., said after the protest. His general contracting firm is located in Phase 1 and one of the nine businesses yet to accept a relocation agreement.

“A select few businesses got fair compensation and relocation. The smaller companies are getting screwed,” Paterno said. “I’m not trying to be difficult, I’d think about moving if I got fair compensati­on.”

The EDC expects to move ahead as planned with the project despite the protestations, and spokeswoman Julie Wood said in an e-mailed statement earlier this month that it will provide important benefits for the people of Queens and New York City.

“As we seek to reach agreements with the nine remaining businesses, we will also begin the legal process that gives us the option to condemn these properties if needed, so that we can continue to move forward,” she said. “In 2011, progress will include issuing a [request for proposals] for a developer in April and starting infrastructure work. When this project is complete, it will create a brand new neighborhood with thousands of jobs, affordable housing options and a vibrant retail sector and it will remediate decades of environmental damage.”

Lipsky and Avella said the move to initiate the eminent domain process violates statements by the city in court documents indicating that it would wait until after a pending state Department of Transportation review of ramps on the Van Wyck Expressway. Lipsky, who represents Willets Point property owners, and Avella contend the ramps must be built to handle the 80,000 extra car trips per day they say the project will create.

“They’ve worked long and hard to develop their businesses and they serve the greater Queens and New York City community. The city now wants to take their property,” Avella said at the protest last week. “[The EDC] made a commitment — because there’s an issue with the ramps the state DOT has not approved what the city is suggesting — that until that issue is resolved they would not proceed with eminent domain. Well, guess what? Once again the Economic Development Corp. has lied, has lied to these business owners, lied to the elected officials and lied to the people of this city.”

The EDC maintains that proceeding with the first phase of the project does not require building the ramps.

The first phase of the project is expected to include 1.3 million square feet of development, including affordable housing, retail, a hotel, 2 acres of open space and necessary infrastructure improvements.

The entire project is to include more than 5,000 apartments, 1.7 million square feet of retail and a hotel to be built in three phases.

If the nine remaining Phase 1 business owners refuse to leave their property, the case will go before the courts, which have not been consistent in their rulings on eminent domain. The landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo v. City of New London set the precedent that governments could seize land on behalf of a private developer for uses deemed to be in the public good, which in that case included economic development.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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