By Stephen Stirling
A night fraught with emotion and frustration ended early Tuesday morning when Community Board 7 voted 20-15 to conditionally approve the redevelopment of Willets Point, marking the first of four approvals the city needs to forge ahead with the controversial project.
More than six hours of discussion and debate inside a sweltering room at times brought a crowd of than 200 people to the brink of disorder, but shortly after 12:30 a.m. the board, by a five-vote margin, approved a motion to adopt a committee recommendation to approve the project so long as several conditions were met prior to a City Council vote.
Though the muffled chants of scores of protesters who lined the Union Plaza Care Center put an exclamation point on the deep divide over the controversial proposal, the close decision left many on both sides of the argument feeling optimistic.
Following the meeting supporters of the city's plan to redevelop the 62-acre industrial enclave into a massive residential and commercial community championed the vote as the first bold step toward the project's approval.
“It was worth every minute of it, it's good government,” said former Borough President Claire Shulman, one of the redevelopment's staunchest supporters, following the vote.
The business owners, managers and workers who have fiercely opposed the plan since its inception, meanwhile, argued that the divided vote showcased the weak popularity of the city's plan.
“The city narrowly got this by the board tonight,” said Tom Mina of T. Mina Building supply. “It's a total victory for us.”
The conditions outlined for the board's approval include greater public oversight once a developer is chosen, the creation of a multimillion-dollar fund to address unforeseen problems that may arise and a guarantee that 30 percent of all housing is affordable.
Willets Point Committee Chairman Chuck Apelian said the city showed the board an unprecedented amount of outreach, agreeing in principle to giving the board future oversight on the project, guaranteeing the inclusion of a school and forming a mitigation fund to offset any unforeseen problems that may arise in the future.
“I think what this board was able to get from the city is really terrific,” Apelian said. “We are the first step of the ladder and everything doesn't get worked out on the first rung.”
Dan Feinstein of Feinstein Ironworks said Apelian and Board Chairman Gene Kelty unfairly pushed the board toward an approval despite a vocal opposition.
“If the board chairs hadn't influenced that vote, we would've won hands down,” he said. “That smells like a dead fish.”
The use of eminent domain was a clear concern of many of the dissenters on the board who throughout the hearing heard from Willets Point workers who at times became visibly upset and angry when discussing the potential for the city to forcibly take their land.
Late in the evening, G.L. Soni, who owns Indian food distributor House of Spices, angrily banged on the podium when asked to finish up his speech screaming, “No, I will not leave. This is my livelihood and I am at the end of my rope.”
“I have a proclamation from Mayor Michael Bloomberg telling me what a fantastic job I am doing. And now you want to take my land,” Soni said. “I have paid taxes for more than 20 years. Where did that money go? Where is it? What did I get for it?”
As the clock inched past midnight, board member Phil Konigsberg said he could not in good conscience vote for a plan that could potentially put the more than 1,700 workers at the site out of work.
“I feel for the people who have come up here and who have been here every step of the way and it tears me apart,” he said.
The city is hoping to clear Willets Point and redevelop it into a sprawling residential and commercial neighborhood that would feature as many as 5,500 housing units and more than 2 million square feet of retail and office space. The project is expected to cost at least $3 billion.
As the next step in the public approval process, Borough President Helen Marshall — one of the plan's staunchest supporters — is expected to issue her own recommendation following a July 10 public hearing at Queens Borough Hall.
Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.