Willets Point business owners hold hunger strike as vote is delayed

THE COURIER/Photo by Melissa Chan

The hunger strike being held by a group of auto shop owners at Willets Point is a “look into the future” for soon-to-be displaced families who could be left fending for food and a sustainable job, advocates said.

At least eight business owners are fasting and staying put inside an auto shop at 37-03 126th Street until they can be relocated out of the Iron Triangle as a group. They began the strike on Friday, August 30.

“I have to do it,” said Julia Sandoval, a 56-year-old business owner who is diabetic and striking against her doctor’s orders. “I have to do something. It’s my place, my business.”

The city has been urging shops to leave in order to make way for a $3 billion project to redevelop Willets Point, which includes cleaning up 23 acres of contaminated land and eventually constructing housing units and a mega mall near Citi Field.

Developers need the City Council’s final approval to move Citi Field parking to Willets Point in order to construct a 1.4 million-square-foot shopping center west of the baseball stadium.

However, the Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises did not vote on the project during a September 3 hearing and is not expected to do so this month, sources said.

Councilmember Julissa Ferreras, who represents the area, instead grilled city officials and developers for more answers and better relocation plans.

“I want to ensure the proposed development is fair and balanced,” Ferreras said. “Before making any decision, we must know all the facts and the community must feel reassured that this is the best decision.”

Soon-to-be displaced businesses say they can only survive if they are moved as a whole and can continue as a one-stop shop for motorists.

“The motor, body work, glass — all these things get damaged [in a car accident],” said Marco Neira, an advocate for the businesses. “They come in with a car over here and they find everything in one place. They pay half of the price they could pay somewhere else.”

Ferreras, at the hearing, said she was told in 2009 the businesses could be moved in a group.

“We are now here in 2013 and I’m being told it’s impossible – the economy, all the reasons why it can’t happen,” she said. “That is not a plan that we can just scrape off the table now.”

Neira said business owners have been eyeing a $9 million spot in Maspeth which would house 60 to 80 shops, but they have heard no guarantee from the city.

City officials said they were open to group relocations and proposed moving smaller clusters of five to seven businesses.

Economic Development Corporation executive Thomas McKnight said the city has found 140 potential relocation sites in the last year.

So far, there are only relocation plans in works for 10 businesses of the 120 eligible, officials said.

The project has been given the green light by the City Planning Commission, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and Community Board 7, but both the board and borough president had conditions for its endorsements.

They said surrounding communities and its leaders must be kept informed of the project’s progress and traffic problems that arise.

The city and the facility’s developer must also fulfill written commitments they made, which include funding traffic mitigation measures, building a 1,000-seat K-8 public school, giving $1.87 million to the Willets Point Infrastructure and Traffic Mitigation Fund, and hiring locally.