Willets Point owners ready to fight

Property owners at Willets Point say they will continue to reach out to members of their community who have yet to make deals with the city. Map made by Diana Rios. Data courtesy of Willets Point United Against Eminent Domain
By Stephen Stirling

Property owners at Willets Point said they are readying battle plans to fight the city−approved redevelopment of the area in both the court of law and public opinion.

Leaders of Willets Point United Against Eminent Domain, a newly formed coalition of at least 22 property owners in the area, said land acquisition negotiations have dried up since the city Economic Development Corp. won a resounding victory in the Council late last year by getting plans for a $3 billion mega−project approved.

“Nobody’s heard from them. The city doesn’t believe there’s anyone else out here that can fight back, so they’re just going to try and roll over us,” said Jake Bono, of Bono Sawdust and Supply Co. “With all of these new people coming together to fight the project, it should sound an alarm for the public that something isn’t right here.”

While the city said it now controls about 60 percent of the privately owned land at Willets Point, more than 60 property owners have not agreed to deals with the city. Willets Point United represents about a third of those landowners and is backed by the Institute of Justice, one of the largest national coalitions against eminent domain, which allows government bodies to take land for public or private development.

“We’re going to throw everything we can at these guys,” Bono said. “You just wait. We’ve got a few big surprises coming.”

The EDC denied the group’s claims that negotiations had halted and said the city is currently regrouping and reassessing the project in the wake of the vote.

“With more than $400 million in committed City funding and additional investment from a developer that will be selected via an RFP later this year, the City will create a vibrant new neighborhood at Willets Point,” the EDC said in a statement. “As throughout the ULURP process, NYCEDC and its partners are working to reach fair deals with property owners, inform businesses of City−funded relocation assistance and provide valuable workforce training to interested workers.”

In November, the EDC won its bid to redevelop the 62−acre business enclave of about 250 businesses into a sprawling residential and commercial community when the Council voted 42−2 in favor of the project.

The EDC said its schedule for the project has not changed and the city hopes to begin razing and cleaning up the site as early as 2010.

But Julissa Ferreras, the former chief of staff for newly minted state Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D−East Elmhurst), who is now running for his vacated Council seat, said while she is committed to ensuring the city’s proposed vision becomes a reality, she does not see construction beginning in the area until 2012 or 2013 at the earliest.

“Willets Point I don’t think is going to happen tomorrow. But I want to work as closely as I can with the city to ensure it happens sooner rather than later,” Ferreras said. “There’s really no need to rush into something unless it is going to be beneficial to everyone in the community.”

Community Board 7 Vice Chairman Chuck Apelian, who held more than 50 hours of public meetings on the project, said he does not view the drop−off in activity as a cause for alarm.

“I don’t think anyone expected this to be a sprint to the finish line,” Apelian said. “The economy is affected by this no matter how you want to look at it. In six months to a year, though, especially with this stimulus package President Obama has proposed, that could all change very rapidly. It’s all part of the process.”

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

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