Urban interest group politics is always interesting. Today burried deep in the New York Times is an interesting case study of the battle between "green" gentrification and ugly, dirty auto-parts stores in Queens, NYC.
Just two weeks ago, I drove from Manhattan to Queens to see my 94 year old grandfather. Queens is shocking. Just 2 miles from downtown NYC, you would never guess that you are so close to fancy real estate. All of a sudden you are surrounded by defunct industrial areas and ugly stores selling low value used parts. I wondered why such valuable real estate hasn't been converted to its highest value. Clearly, Mayor Bloomberg's staff have had the same reaction.
May 17, 2006
A Redevelopment Scuffle in Queens
By TERRY PRISTIN
The streets are strewn with garbage and littered with abandoned cars. There are potholes the size of craters but no sidewalks. Deep puddles linger long after a rainstorm, and business owners must make do with cesspools instead of sewers.
In all, Willets Point seems more like a neighborhood in a developing country than an easily accessible 75-acre enclave in the shadow of Shea Stadium in northern Queens.
In what is shaping up as a contentious development fight, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg hopes to transform Willets Point — also known as the Iron Triangle because of its concentration of small auto-parts and repair shops — into a retailing and entertainment district with a hotel and convention center. The redevelopment efforts have assumed added urgency for City Hall now that a new $700 million stadium is planned for the Mets. The new ballpark will be closer to 126th Street, just opposite Willets Point.
But there is one big obstacle. Apart from the streets and 13.5 acres owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the remaining 46 acres of Willets Point are privately owned and home to 250 businesses employing at least 1,200 people, by the city's count. Not all these businesses are expected to go quietly.
Undaunted by the nationwide furor over eminent domain resulting from a Supreme Court ruling last July — which upheld a decision by officials in New London, Conn., to force property sales to foster economic development — city officials say they are prepared to use their condemnation powers at Willets Point. Citing various environmental violations, including illegal dumping and open petroleum spills, they say the area is a public health hazard.
"In some ways, this is the most compelling case for eminent domain," said Daniel L. Doctoroff, the deputy mayor who oversees economic development. "It has nothing to do with the uses. It has to do with intolerable conditions."
Mr. Doctoroff estimates that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up Willets Point. No private capital will be invested there if there are holdouts who might bring about further contamination, he said.
In February, the city invited eight development teams, including some of the most active companies in the city — like Forest City Ratner (which is the partner of The New York Times Company in its new headquarters building on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan), Vornado Realty Trust and the Related Companies — to submit proposals for the "creation of an experience unique to the New York metropolitan region" at Willets Point.
Steeped in the language of the New Urbanist movement, the New York Economic Development Corporation's request for proposals seeks "pedestrian-friendly urban design and superior architecture." Maintaining that the borough is "significantly underserved by retail," the agency asked for letters of intent from retailers that are "unique" to Queens. Housing may be included but is not mandatory.
A hotel and exposition center is envisioned for the northern end of Willets Point. In a 2004 feasibility study, HVS International, a consulting company based in Mineola, N.Y., that specializes in the hotel and convention business, identified Willets Point as the best location in Queens for a 125,000-square-foot conference center with a 250-room hotel because of its proximity to major highways and "the large amount of contiguous land" that could be redeveloped.
Developers' submissions are due in mid-June, with the rezoning process set to begin in January. A development partner will be selected once the plans are approved by the City Council.
Administration officials say the request for proposals was preceded by a planning process that began in 2002, when Mr. Doctoroff organized a task force of business and community leaders to come up with development goals for downtown Flushing, which lies across the Flushing River from Willets Point. About four miles from La Guardia Airport and easily accessible by highway, subway and train, Willets Point is bordered on the north by Northern Boulevard, on the east by the Van Wyck Expressway, on the west by 126th Street and on the south by Roosevelt Avenue.
The administration's strategy is being attacked from several directions, even by those who say eminent domain is sometimes necessary for urban redevelopment.
One such critic is Brad Lander, executive director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, who said the city should have led "a public process, informed by data" before asking developers to submit detailed proposals.
"This seems to me to fly in the face of one of the few things that Kelo says you have to do," he said, referring to the majority decision in the Supreme Court eminent domain case, Kelo vs. New London. "You have to have a planning process to determine if there's a public good to the thing you're doing."
Others say the mayor has underestimated the neighborhood's role in the city's economy. Several local business owners say they were offended to hear the mayor refer to Willets Point as a haven for "chop shops and deserted warehouses" in a recent radio interview. "There's no real economic activity there," Mr. Bloomberg declared.
During a recent tour of the neighborhood, Hiram Monserrate, a city councilman who represents Willets Point, said most of the businesses there are operating legally and offer entry-level jobs to immigrants.
Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College who has just completed a study of the area, said these businesses form a cluster that would be hard to duplicate elsewhere.
"This is the kind of community economic development experts are trying to create, and it's already here," Dr. Angotti said at a recent news conference to unveil his report. "The question should be: How do you nurture this? How do you make it better? Does it make any sense to get rid of them and bring in somebody new?"
Janice Serrone, who runs an auto glass company on Willets Point Road that draws customers from as far away as Connecticut, said: "We're kind of all dependent on each other. People know that over here you can pay $140 for a windshield. In Connecticut, they're going to pay $340."
While auto-related uses predominate in Willets Point, about 500 people work for the larger, long-established family businesses. These include the Tully Construction Company, which operates a waste transfer station and recycling plant; House of Fodera, a national distributor of flour and other ingredients used in bagels, muffins and croissants; and House of Spices, where food imported from India, like basmati rice, is cleaned, repackaged and sold to restaurants.
"My employees have no cars," said Neil Soni, a vice president of House of Spices, which has 110 employees. "If I moved to the Bronx, how will they get there?"
These property owners, who have hired Peter F. Vallone, the former speaker of the City Council, to lobby for them, say that, because of its location, Willets Point would thrive as an industrial area with more distribution centers if the city would just pave the streets and hook up the sewers. They say the neighborhood has been neglected by successive administrations because of its potential as a redevelopment site.
"We don't need a private developer to come in and try to develop our land," said Peter K. Tully, the president of Tully.
Mr. Doctoroff said that the city had identified 16 other places suitable for the development of distribution centers but that La Guardia had no room to grow. "This just isn't the right place for it," he said.
Helen M. Marshall, the borough president of Queens, said the community supported redevelopment. "I know there are good solid stakeholders" in Willets Point, she said, but "we can't afford to have this kind of place in Queens anymore."