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Hunger strike ends in failure, mechanics forced out of Willets Point

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George Molina struggled to pull down the shutter on his car shop in Willets Point. For 12 years he’s made a living in a part of Queens that is filled with potholes that resemble mini caves and one of the highest concentrations of businesses aimed at fixing cars internally and aesthetically.

Molina explained that the city has been harassing him and his fellow mechanics for the whole month with tickets for continuing to do maintenance work on cars on the streets, which is illegal in New York City. As members of the Sunrise Coop, a group of 48 auto-shop owners, Molina’s property was taken by the city, according to the city Economic Development Corporation, as part of deal negotiated with the city to move to a new location in the Bronx.

Now, on a Tuesday afternoon, with the temperatures boiling into the 90s, Molina was giving up. The area, which has been completely neglected by the city over many years, was now a ghost town even though some shop owners still were serving customers. But the city is moving ahead on a multibillion-dollar plan to turn the area into a commercial and residential development.

The city technically evicted all members of the Sunrise Coop, according to the EDC, and the property was taken by the city June 5. The EDC said it received written certification from the coop that all tenants in the coop have vacated. But Molina, who has two kids in college, and others continue to work on customers’, incurring tickets everyday for commercial operaitons on a public street and for violating the agreement.

“Everyone will lose their job,” he said through a translator as he tried to pull the shutter down on his shop. “I now have nothing to do. The city did a bad thing over here.”

A group of auto-shop owners in Willets Point led an unsuccessful hunger strike protesting the eviction.

The strike ended on June 5, just four days after almost a dozen auto shop owners swore off food. The strike was led by the coop’s president Marco Neira. Since then, Molina and others in the area are being barraged with tickets for working on cars on the street that they cannot pay for as the city increases pressure for the mechanics to leave the area.

In March, the city gave the group about $5.8 million to relocate their operations from Willets Point to the Hunts Point Section in the Bronx.

But according to Neira, the 17-auto repair shops were supposed to have been fully constructed in Hunts Point by July 1, but so far nothing has been built. According to the city Department of Buildings, construction has not started because the Sunrise Coop has not filled out the necessary paperwork to get things moving.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. at a meeting of editors for Community News Group, parent of the TimesLedger, said the Bronx could not proceed with the Hunts Point project until Queens completed the certificate of occupancy application and other requirements.

But none of this really matters – or makes any sense – for the dozens of auto shop owners who were forced to close down their businesses June 5. Molina, like most of the people who work in Willets point, does not speak English.

The agreement specified that the EDC would pay $4.8 million and the Queens Development Group, the site developers, would provide $960,000. The Sunrise Co-op was expected to contribute $143,000 and the group would have to leave the site by June 1.

“The group got a raw deal,” Diaz said. “The city should have given them more resources—sizable subsidies.”

Now members of the Sunrise Coop will move to Hunts Point early next year, according to Neira but for the time being, the mechanics have nowhere to go nor do they have any place to store their hefty equipment.

The $3 billion Willets Point Development Plan, which increased from 62 acres to 108.9 acres, includes a megamall that would be built on parkland, a hotel, mixed-income housing, community facilities and a convention center.

The current plan is centered on the first phase of Willets Point, which covers 23 acres of the 62-acre site. The remaining 39 acres will be addressed in the future.

“Tickets. Tickets. Tickets. We’re getting tickets for working in the street and keeping the cars on the street,” said Gustavo Peralta, a mechanic working in the area for a decade.

Speaking in Spanish, he continued, “Everything is going in the trash because we can’t keep it, including parts of cars.”

Shanna Fuld contributed to this report.

Reach reporter Eric Jankiewicz by e-mail at ejankiewicz@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4564.

Updated 2:53 pm, June 25, 2015
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