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Yes! Redevelop Willets Point

Julia Vitullo-Martin, September 2008

In some ways the bitter political controversy over the Bloomberg administration's plans to redevelop Willets Point peninsula—probably the most polluted 60 acres in New York—is bizarre. Located on the Flushing River between Shea Stadium and Downtown Flushing, in Northern Queens, Willets (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) Point is part of the area portrayed as the "valley of ashes" in F. Scott's Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby (1922). From his Long Island estate Gatsby would watch the fires burn across the water and muse on New Yorkís decline and destruction. In 1936 the city cleared the Corona dump to build the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair—today the site of the largest park in Queens, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Although the city cleaned up most of the area, it left Willets Point as an industrial hodge-podge, which gradually developed into what it is today—a grimy home to auto body and chop shops, junk and salvage yards, construction businesses, warehouses, an MTA storage yard, and the House of Spices, the nation's largest distributor of Indian food. Most of the roughly 260 companies in Willets are very small, employing collectively some 1,700 people, and many are immigrant-owned. Together they pay about a million dollars a year in taxes. The jobs at risk are no minor matter in a city that has seen its manufacturing employment shrink by two-thirds since World War II. Nor would the Bloomberg administration's use of eminent domain to take the property of any owner that refuses to sell—as the administration says it will do if it must—be a minor step.

Yet the truth is that the administration is right to be pushing hard to redevelop Willets Point into a mixed-use area of housing, offices, retail space, and parks, plus a hotel, school, and perhaps a convention center.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Willets Point is an environmentally degraded site that is adjacent to thriving residential and commercial neighborhoods—not to mention directly across the street from the new Mets stadium and down the road from the National Tennis Center, in Flushing Meadows Park. Tourists and sports fans find a very different experience from that in competitor cities—say, the neighborhood charm of Bostonís Fenway Park or the elegance of London's Wimbledon. Instead, they encounter an area that has been polluted by destructive government policies and private dumping of wastes for over a century and that today has a threatening, almost feral, ambience.

Some property owners argue that the seemingly lawless atmosphere is due to the city's refusal over the years to provide any basic infrastructure. Most of the streets are unpaved, and those that are paved are pitted and potholed. Curbs and sidewalks are very few. There are no sanitary sewers whatsoever, requiring all waste either to stay in place or flow into cesspools. The storm sewers are clogged or simply not functioning. The underlying environmental problem is the area's high water table, which produces a natural swamp easily contaminated by toxic run-offs.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

No one could seriously argue that New York would be better off had the city permitted public and private dumping in the valley of ashes to continue—and had it not developed Flushing Meadows Park, Shea Stadium, and the USTA National Tennis Center. Yet community activists are now seriously arguing that the auto body shops and other businesses should be allowed to continue practices that pour toxins and heavy metals into the water table. Kevin McCarty, director of environmental investigations for HDR Engineering & Architecture, who has been studying the site, says that businesses "are operating like it's still 1950 and you can paint cars in the street and dump whatever you want on the ground." Worse, even if these businesses wanted to comply fully with current environmental regulations, they couldn't, he points out, because the necessary infrastructure isn't present to contain and recycle the waste. "All this bad stuff goes right into the bay," he says. "The nearest pump station is on the other side of the Grand Central Parkway."

The bad practices (McCarty calls them "poor housekeeping"), which have been going on for decades, resulted in a 2001 indictment by the New York State Attorney General of twenty-one junkyards and thirty-five individuals for dumping antifreeze, motor oil, transmission fluid, and other toxins onto the ground and into the storm drains and Flushing Bay. In fairness to the old-time businesses in Willets Point it should be noted that New York State had no (©Thomas Vitullo-Martin) environmental regulations until 1980. But new standards of conduct are an unavoidable feature of an ever-changing and ever-evolving city. New Yorkers once tolerated polluted air and water as facts of life but now expect their city to be clean.

Yes, there are historic injustices involved in Willets Point. "It's junk around here, we know that," business owner Daniel Sambucci Sr., of Sambucci Bros. Salvage Yards, told the Queens Tribune last year, though his company has since come to an agreement with the Bloomberg administration to sell and relocate their business. "But the city has been neglecting us for 55 years."

If the environmental degradation of Flushing Bay were being done by Exxon or General Motors instead of by hundreds of romantically indomitable immigrant businesses, there would be no political controversy whatever. Such companies would be roundly denounced and the administration applauded. Ironically, over 60 percent of Willets Point's property owners (all commercial) are absentee landlords, according to a study by the New York City Economic (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) Development Corporation (EDC), suggesting that some of the political sympathy for struggling entrepreneurs is misplaced.

EDC president Seth Pinsky says that the agency is trying very hard to avoid condemning any property by determining what these owners have now and asking them what they need to relocate. EDC has settled with several owners and believes it will be able to come to terms with most. If the city, despite its efforts, is confronted with some intransigent hold-outs, it will have to decide on the economic and political merits of resorting to eminent domain. Whatever happens, this will not be a quiet, middle-of-the-night exercise but an out-in-the-open negotiation that all New Yorkers will be able to judge for themselves.

Far more than the typical government official in the mid-20th century, Pinsky understands the complexities that lie ahead. "We're looking to treat everyone fairly. And we will," he says.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

After an eleven to one vote by the City Planning Commission on September 24 (only Commissioner Karen Phillips, appointed by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum voted no), the City Council has fifty days to take up Willets Point. It will be quite a fight. In late April, when City Planning certified the Willets Point environmental impact statement that begins the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, twenty-nine council members, a majority, sent a letter to Deputy Mayor Bob Lieber saying, "This plan is unacceptable, and we wish to inform you that without significant modifications, we will strongly oppose it, leaving no chance of it moving forward." This unprecedented warning from a usually compliant council indicates that the city may be in store for a rough ride, particuarly since two of the leading council opponents are running for other offices—Hiram Monserrate for State Senate and Tony Avella for mayor.

After eminent domain, the most contentious political issue will be the percentage of below-market-rate housing. Should it be 20 percent, as proposed by the Bloomberg administration, or 60 percent, as urged by affordable housing advocates? Between the environmental remediation and the capital costs for new infrastructure, the redevelopment of Willets Point will become one of the most expensive projects in city history. The developer—and city taxpayers—will need as many market-rate units as possible to pay for these costs.


September 2008
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