By Stephen Stirling
Pressure mounted in the Willets Point debate this week as both sides once again traded barbs ahead of a looming City Council vote that promises to be a slugfest between political heavyweights.
City Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-East Elmhurst) upped the ante in his campaign for wholesale changes to the city's Willets Point redevelopment plan or blueprint, proposing new City Council restrictions on eminent domain a day after interrupting a news conference held by former Borough President Claire Shulman.
Monserrate's legislation, introduced last Thursday, would require that development corporations — such as the city's Economic Development Corporation — provide financial reports detailing the economic impact of any proposed project to all parties reviewing it in the public approval process.
“This is not about the Council and advocates killing the plan, it's about making the plan fairer for everyone,” Monserrate said of his bill.
A spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Lieber said the city will review the legislation, but eminent domain was far down on the list of options.
“This administration has a clear track record of using eminent domain sparingly and only as a last resort,” said Andrew Brent, a spokesman for Lieber. “If it should happen that deals with some of the businesses cannot be made, the city would, of course, abide by all city, state and federal laws ensuring that all owners are justly compensated.”
The city is hoping to turn Willets Point, an industrial enclave of more than 250 mostly auto-related businesses, into a massive residential and commercial neighborhood with 5,500 housing units and more than 2 million square feet of retail and office space. The City Council is expected to vote on the project this fall.
Monserrate said he hopes the bill will be considered by the Council in enough time to apply to the Willets Point project.
A day earlier, the councilman turned a placid news conference held by Willets Point redevelopment supporters into an all-out shouting match as he led scores of chanting workers from the area to the Washington Square Park event.
The fracas started shortly after former Borough President Claire Shulman, current Borough President Helen Marshall, state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) and state Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn (D-Flushing) arrived at the park to express their ongoing support for the city's Willets Point redevelopment plan ahead of the City Planning Commission's public hearing on the project.
As Stavisky began speaking, dozens of Willets Point workers appeared across the courtyard armed with signs and bullhorns chanting “save Willets Point,” effectively drowning the state senator out and drawing the ire of Shulman.
“Shame on you, Hiram Monserrate,” Shulman said. “You have stifled this press conference. That's not democracy. How many times have you told me on the side, Hiram, that at the end of the day this project would survive? Shame on you.”
Following the confrontation, the City Planning Commission heard testimony from dozens in support of and against the project. As a mayoral agency, the commission is largely expected to approve the project, after which it will head to the City Council for the final vote.
Shulman said she plans to meet with several of the council members who are against the plan in the coming months and said she firmly believes it will pass in the end.
“I think it will be a challenge, certainly,” she said. “But there's a long time between now and when the City Council votes.”
Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, ext. 138.