By Phil Corso
Business owners who work in the shadow of Citi Field used this week’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game festivities as an opportunity to shed light on the harsh realities they contend go under the radar just across the street.
Inside the ballpark, swarms of sports fans enjoyed the baseball spotlight with the Home Run Derby Monday and the annual All-Star Game the following evening. But just before Tuesday’s first pitch, auto shop owners held up signs accusing the city of working with their neighbor’s home team to kick them out in accordance with city’s ambitious redevelopment plans.
“A lot of people have the impression that the Mets are doing well,” said Discount Mufflers owner Jamie Satti, of the team across 126th Avenue. “They have no idea what they are doing to the business owners in Willets Point.”
Satti and a crowd of fellow business owners and supporters rallied Tuesday evening against the city for serving them with eviction notices in front of his 37-03 126th St. business just as the crowd grew for the big game. He said he hoped the timing would help draw attention to the auto shop haven’s rocky and dirty streets littered with puddles of standing water and neglect.
“Nobody cares what is going to happen to us,” he said. “We have no voice and no support.”
The eviction notices came this week from the city Economic Development Corp. as the result of more than 10 years of redevelopment negotiations involving Willets Point’s future, which will include retail, hotel, commercial and residential upgrades. A spokesman for the EDC said the first phase of the project included the renovation of the 23-acre piece of land in 2014 at the heart of Tuesday’s protest.
Auto shop owners like Satti have been told they were offered the city’s support in relocating their shops elsewhere to communities like Maspeth, but many said the help has been lackluster and half-hearted.
“The city is lying to us about this relocation plan,” said Marco Neira, a tenant in Willets Point and president of the Willets Point Defense Committee. “We pay taxes every year and these are the conditions we have to show for it. If they want this land, they have to give us a place to go.”
The Queens Business Outreach Center of Corona released a report this week outlining the importance of the Willets Point auto repair district, referring to it as a unique, regional destination with about 150 predominately Latino and immigrant-owned businesses and about 1,711 workers.
For months, the city has been shutting down businesses throughout the $3 billion project’s footprint on the grounds of newfound safety issues and construction concerns, the owners said. Borough President Helen Marshall also gave the green light last week to a mall that would be built in an area currently used for Citi Field parking, sparking more outrage from members of the community.
“We are all small businesses, and we are all minorities,” said Pedro Estevez, president and founder of the nonprofit United Auto Merchants Association. “We are behind these business owners because we feel an injustice is being done. If they hurt one small business, they hurt all of us.”