Willets meeting gets heated

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The Flushing branch of the Queens Library was packed to the gills last week with people seeking to air their views about the planned redevelopment of Willets Point.

The occasion was the city Economic Development Corp.’s only legally mandated public hearing on its possible use of eminent domain to seize property from its owners in order to obtain 20 acres of land in the first phase of a $3 billion proposal to revamp the neglected 62-acre site.

The March 2 meeting lasted several hours and included testimonials by dozens of Iron Triangle business and land owners as well as public officials and labor and hotel groups. A procession of opponents of the project offered three-minute impassioned pleas for the city to abandon the plan.

Jack Bono, a Vietnam War veteran and owner of Bono Sawdust Supply, which has been in Willets Point since 1933, said the city is impinging on his property rights.

“We are being railroaded. Who is there to help us? .... What is next — are they going to shoot us or put us in jail?” he asked. “Wake up, New York, and get rid of these dictators.”

Some speakers did not go so far as to recommend that the proposal be canned, instead arguing the city needs to work to find a good solution for Willets businesses.

Eduardo Giraldo spoke on behalf of the Queens Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which he said is concerned whether the many Latino-owned businesses in the area will be moved in a fair manner.

“Breaking all these businesses apart will kill the business model that has worked for 40 years,” he said. “We must give them the power to relocate as a group.”

A number of people spoke in support of the project as it is currently planned, although some expressed concerns about how the businesses will be compensated and relocated. These advocates included U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Jackson Heights), state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) and state Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn (D-Flushing), all of whom submitted written testimony that was read aloud by staffers.

“It’s time to put Willets Point on track to become the economic hub it’s destined to be,” Stavisky said in her testimony.

The city also presented its view for the future of the project in a longer presentation by Tom McKnight, the EDC’s senior vice president for development.

“The plan is a comprehensive planning, zoning and redevelopment strategy aimed at transforming a largely under-utilized, approximately 61-acre site with substandard conditions and substantial environmental degradation into a lively, mixed-use, sustainable community and regional destination,” he said.

The hearing was preceded by a protest organized by Willets Point United, a group of Willets Point business owners opposed to the city’s redevelopment plan. The group recently announced it is reopening a lawsuit against the city aimed at halting the project.

The project’s first phase contains 20 acres bounded roughly by 126th and 127th streets and 35th and Roosevelt avenues and would include market-rate and affordable housing, retail space, a hotel, two acres of open space and infrastructure improvements. The entire project is to include more than 5,000 apartments, 1.7 million square feet of retail and a hotel.

The city has three months to produce a document known as “determinat­ion and findings,” after which it must publish for two consecutive days a summary of concerns raised at the hearing.

Affected property owners then have an opportunity to file petitions to invalidate the findings or to lodge appeals in the state Court of Appeals.

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

Updated 10:41 am, October 12, 2011
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