City, biz owners fight for control of Willets Point

By Stephen Stirling

The city and a coalition of business owners at Willets Point traded blows this week in the fight for control of the 62-acre area sought by Mayor Michael Bloomberg for a sprawling redevelopment, each side building its case ahead of the City Council's pivotal vote on the project this fall.

The city Economic Development Corporation announced it had struck a deal to relocate Flushing Towing Tuesday, the fourth business to sign such an agreement with the city. Flushing Towing's owner, Carlos Canal, said he was happy to be able to reach a deal with the city to move his business, which is housed on 4,000 square feet of land at Willets Point.

“I now have a future to look forward to,” Canal said.

Meanwhile, the coalition of business owners at Willets Point announced the addition of five members to its group last week — the latest chapter in the ongoing power struggle with the city over the site.

St. John Enterprises, United Steel Products, Shea Auto Repair, Trading Used Auto Parts and Empire Group last Thursday officially joined the Willets Point Business and Real Estate Association, a group of business owners who have mounted the fiercest opposition against the city's plans to transform the area into a sprawling $3 billion residential and commercial neighborhood.

“With these new members, our coalition now represents more than 53 percent of the private property in Willets Point,” said association member Tom Mina, owner of T. Mina Building Supply. “That should send a clear message to this administration that we will never allow them to take our property just so they can give it to a politically connected developer.”

With control of more than 50 percent of the land at Willets Point, the association made it far more difficult for the city to forge ahead with its plans to redevelop the area.

Business negotiations between the EDC, which has spearheaded the plan to transform the area into a mixed-use development featuring 5,500 housing units and more than 2 million square feet of retail and office space, and many of the property owners have been contentious at best.

“I am in jail with the city. I don't know what to do. I can't move, I can't sell my property,” said Georgiou Charalambos, co-owner of Shea Auto Repair. “I'm 66 years old and I want to retire, but I am stuck. No one from the EDC has talked to me. They just want the property.”

The city has signed purchase or relocation agreements with four of the 74 property owners at Willets Point, but is continuing to conduct extensive outreach in its effort to get more businesses on board.

The property owner group's members, however, say the city has fallen short in its negotiations and the longer the stand-off continues, the greater the likelihood that the city will need to use eminent domain to acquire the land. This prospect could work against the city when it seeks approval of its plan from the City Council this fall. Earlier this year, 31 members of the City Council signed a letter signaling their opposition to the plan, with the potential use of eminent domain as one of their largest objections.

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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