One group of auto repair shop owners who took the city’s offer to move out of Willets Point finally got a break. After weeks of uncertainty and tense negotiations, more than 40 businesses that belong to the Sunrise Co-op signed a deal to relocate as a group to a building in the South Bronx.
Even though the co-op members face a wait of several months before the new facility is ready, they will be able to offer the same kind of one-stop shopping for auto repairs that made Willets Point an attractive draw for car owners.
Some of the Sunrise businesses had left their shops on the rutted roads of Willets Point in January in exchange for six months’ worth of rent payments from the city, but found themselves without a place to reopen. In another hardship, a number of the owners had not received a single check from the city as of last week.
The city has been using several tools to clear out the mom-and-pop shops that have operated in the Iron Triangle for decades during the first phase of a $3 billion development project under the shadow of Citi Field.
Some business owners had their shops shuttered by the city, then reopened in a day or two. Others were offered payments to leave by a certain date. And the threat of eminent domain, which would allow the city to seize a property at will, still hangs in the air for the remaining holdouts.
Willets Point has never been a paradise. Long neglected by the city, the spot has more in common with a third-world country than the modern metropolis around it. There are no sewers, the roads have not been paved and streetlights are a fantasy.
For years many elected officials in Queens thought a criminal element ran Willets Point with few legitimate businesses operating in the space between the Flushing River and the ballfield. But in 2006, Hunter College released a surprising study which found 225 firms in the 62-acre wasteland provided between 1,400 and 1,800 jobs primarily in auto-related industries. Most of the workers were immigrants.
The city appears to have fallen short on its efforts to relocate many of the smaller shops that agreed to leave. The Willets Point Defense Committee, which represents other owners, has appealed to Mayor Bill de Blasio to help find them a place in Queens where they can move as a group.
It’s time for the city to deliver on its promise to relocate these small but vital players in the borough economy and to speed up the move-out payments.