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Willets Point owners, tenants, workers unite in defiance

By Stephen Stirling

THE WILLETS POINT OBSTACLE COURSE

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The city is hoping to turn the 60-acre site, known as the Iron Triangle, into a sprawling, mixed-use development that could include upward of 5,500 units of housing, a convention center and more than 1 million square feet of retail and office space at a price tag above $3 billion.The New York City Economic Development Corporation, which is expected to present its proposal for the project to the City Council in the coming months, has drawn criticism from elected officials due to the lack of detail surrounding relocation plans for the businesses which employ between 1,400 and 1,800 workers, according to a 2006 Hunter College Study. The EDC maintains it is continuing to negotiate relocation options with those who own their land and will do everything within its legal rights to aid in the relocation of everyone at the site . But the agency also has declined to take eminent domain off the table as a last resort. Despite this the EDC has repeatedly butted heads with the owner-occupants, the tenant businesses and the workers who currently call the Iron Triangle home, many of whom accuse the city of paying them little more than lip service as they march toward their goal.The Owner-OccupantsEleven owner-operated businesses on Willets Point occupy nearly 50 percent of the developable area at the site and have joined together to become the most prominent voice of opposition against the city's plan – one that has blasted the city's attempts to negotiate the purchase of their land.House of Spices, Feinstein Iron Works, Tully Construction Co., Tully Environmental Inc., Crown Container, Bono Sawdust and Supply, the Parts Authority, T. Mina Supply Inc., Fodera Foods, QC Iron Works Inc. and Sambucci Brothers Inc. make up the Willets Point Business and Industry Association, an advocacy group whose principal goal has been fighting the redevelopment of Willets Point as a unified front.WPIRA represents an amalgam of the largest and oldest businesses residing within the Iron Triangle.House of Spices, headquartered at 127-40 Willets Point Blvd., is the largest distributor of Indian food products in the United States. Tully Construction Co., meanwhile, has grown from its 1988 start as a highway contractor into a diverse engineering and construction firm handling a wide range of infrastructure and environmental projects in New York City. Bono Sawdust and Supply Co. is a third generation business and the sole supplier of sawdust sweeping compound in the city.The land owners have been consistently against redevelopment, but Dan Scully of Tully Environmental Inc. said that is more a result of the city's inaction than the businesses' stubbornness.”We're still trying to find a way to make this work for all people involved,” Scully said Monday.. “We're not against development, but how that happens is the real question for us.”Tom McKnight, vice president of the EDC, said the city will continue to negotiate with the businesses, but only for so long.”While the city is committed to working with the area's businesses and workers to identify new locations and job opportunities, the physical fact remains that Willets Point must be cleaned up comprehensively and responsibly to address decades of spillage and neglect that are made worse by the area's high water table that spreads pollution and allows it to seep into groundwater, Flushing Bay and the Flushing River,” McKnight said in a recent statement.Gerald Antonacci, owner of waste management company Crown Container, said the city has had discussions with him about relocating his business, but none of the suggestions have been realistic.”For me I've got a waste transfer station. If it does come down to me moving, I need to know that there's a guarantee that you're going to give me the permits I need to operate my business,” he said. “They said, 'Well, we can't really give that to you in writing.' Well, what am I supposed to do with that then?”Antonacci said the discussions have seemed disingenuous.”I think they just wanted to get it on record. It's just talking so they can write it down and say they did talk to Crown [Container] on this day, he couldn't be pleased, so we've got to use eminent domain on him.”The Tenant Businesses“They keep talking and saying that they have a plan for us,” said Arturo Olaya, owner of Arthur's Auto Trim Shop. “They're lying to everyone. They're supposed to know where they're going to put us. They should show us the reality. They're doing the things backwards. That's why we're organized and trying to stop this project.”Olaya is a one of more than 200 business owners who rent or lease their land, employ hundreds of workers and make up the other half of the property in the Iron Triangle. The tenant businesses have also voiced their opposition to the city's plan, but have less to bargain with.”We are precluded by law from offering them relocation sites because it would get in the way of a tenant/landlord relationship,” said McKnight, the EDC vice president.McKnight said the EDC will be able to engage in relocation discussions with the tenant businesses, but when and if the City Council approves the project. He said the EDC is working to keep the tenant/business owners and their workers informed until that point.Olaya and several other tenant owners have become fixtures at community board meetings and several town halls held by the EDC. Olaya said he has become increasingly frustrated with the lack of outreach the city has offered him. “They always say the same thing: 'We want to help you we want to work with you.' But they don't have the land to relocate us. If this project is complete, why don't they have the plan for the relocation?”The Workers“I go home with my socks wet every day,” said Michael Batista, a tow truck driver for Flushing Towing in Willets Point. “I get athlete's foot from constantly stepping in puddles.”Batista is no stranger to the unique working environment of Willets Point. The area has no sanitary sewers or street lights and many of the roads are unpaved and littered with gaping potholes. Because of a high water table, flooding is common, and the water often takes days to evaporate.”No one else in New York City works under these conditions. It's inhumane,” he said.Batista, who has become a vocal opponent of the redevelopment at community board meetings and town halls, said his job at Flushing Towing has been the first he thought he could rely on.”Now that I have a nice stable job, my boss tells me that they want to do this redevelopment. I didn't believe him,” he said.”I never even heard of eminent domain before I got here. I never knew the city could just come in and take land like that. It seems wrong to me.”LaGuardia Community College was selected by the city to head up the Workforce Assistance Plan, designed to retrain and relocate the workers to other industries if the city's redevelopment plan is approved.”That would be available to all employees in Willets Point, undocumented or documented,” McKnight said. “We want to make sure we're being inclusive.”Batista said, however, that he has no desire to enter such a program.”I know everything about tow trucks. How are they going to come and tell me to do something else now?” he asked. “That's just erasing everything. To train the mechanics here all over again to do something different isn't right. If they're mechanics, they're going to want to be mechanics.”Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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