By Stephen Stirling
A news conference held by Willets Point redevelopment supporters descended into bedlam Wednesday afternoon when scores of chanting workers from the area led by City Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-East Elmhurst) turned what started as a placid event into an all-out shouting match.
The fracas started shortly after former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, Borough President Helen Marshall, state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) and state Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn (D-Flushing) appeared in Washington Square Park in Manhattan 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 cutting off the state senator and drawing the ire of Shulman.
"Back off! Back off!" Shulman shouted. "We will not be drowned out, our voices will be heard."
"You can chant and you can yell all you want, but that's not going to make a damn bit of difference," Mayersohn said, attempting to move the event forward. "Willets Point is nothing more than a junkyard and unless we do something positive there, it's going to stay a junkyard."
The city is hoping to turn Willets Point, a 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.
As Mayersohn spoke, Monserrate appeared in front of the crowd, silently holding up a letter signed by 32 members of the City Council the day before announcing plans to vote down the project if the City Planning Commission did not make substantial changes to it.
Eight of Queens' 14 Council members signed the letter.
"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."
Shortly thereafter, both sides traded chants of "shame on you."
Following the event, a frustrated Marshall said she believes the project will pass but admitted the apparent lack of support in the Council is less than ideal.
"If everyone would cooperate on this, I think everyone would win," Marshall said. "This project is an amazing project for Queens. I would defy any of those Council members who signed that letter to have this in their district and turn it down."
Responding to Shulman's criticism of him, Monserrate defended his right to appear at the event.
"That's their political spin," he said. "This is America. The America that I know protects property rights of American citizens. New York City is still part of America."
Following the melee, the City Planning Commission heard testimony from dozens in support 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 [email protected] or by phone at 718-229-0300, ext. 138.