Willets Point raids were attempt at coercion: Report

Urban Justice Center attorney Ted de Barbieri speaks alongside workers from Willets Point at a rally across the street from Citi Field. Photo by Stephen Stirling
By Stephen Stirling

A report issued by the Urban Justice Center Tuesday accuses the city of using strong-arm negotiating tactics with property owners at Willets Point while ignoring more than 200 tenant businesses that operate in the area.

More than two dozen Willets Point workers rallied alongside members of the Urban Justice Center outside Citi Field Tuesday to allege that the city orchestrated multi-agency raids on three properties housing 11 small businesses in April as a means of pushing property owners to strike deals to sell their land.

“The timing of these mass closures with a renewed effort to acquire private land for a public redevelopment is questionable and it may also be illegal,” the report said.

The raids, which occurred March 22 and April 2, came just weeks before the city announced it would renew efforts to acquire property in the southwestern portion of Willets Point to pursue its redevelopment plans for the area.

“When the government enters into private negotiations to acquire private land for an urban renewal plan like the type that has been authorized at Willets Point, there is a danger that any unequal or improper city action will be seen as an attempt to influence or coerce private landowners to sell their land,” the report said. “The actions taken by the city in the past few months are questionable at best, illegal at worst.”

The raids were launched by a collaboration of several city agencies, including the New York Police Department, the Fire Department, the Department of Buildings and the Department of Environmental Protection, and targeted 126-58 and 126-75 Willets Point Blvd. and 37-03 126th St. — all of which are in the area the city hopes to develop first.

“Those of us who have worked in government know that it’s difficult to get agencies to coordinate with one another,” said Wayne Mahlke, chief of staff for state Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D-East Elmhurst). “The city launched these raids in the same week they were negotiating with these property owners. There is no way it was a coincidence.”

The city Economic Development Corp., which has been managing the city’s plan to redevelop Willets Point as a massive residential and commercial neighborhood, said it had nothing to do with the planning or execution of the raids.

“EDC has nothing to do whatsoever with the enforcement actions by the NYPD. We’ve been negotiating with property owners and acquiring parcels for about two years, well before and after the alleged actions took place,” said EDC spokesman Dave Lombino. “We currently control more than 65 percent of the land at Willets Point and it is our goal to acquire all of it through negotiated settlements with the property owners.”

Additionally, the owner of one of the properties that was raided and shut down, Roman Zak, told TimesLedger Newspapers in April he had hoped to have negotiations with the city but he had not been contacted.

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

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