Willets Point shops blast EDC relocation effort

Photo by Alex Robinson
By Alex Robinson

A number of Willets Point business owners joined state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) last week to demand better relocation options from the city.

Avella charged the city has failed to provide adequate relocation services to many of the businesses that are being pushed out of Willets Point to make room for the first phase of a $3 billion redevelopment of the area into a new neighborhood with a megamall.

“The businesses, who are really mom-and-pop businesses that have been there for a long time, have been made a series of promises by the city through the Economic Development Corp. that have not come to pass,” Avella told reporters at a news conference at his office.

A number of auto repair shops and junk yards have found themselves with nowhere to go after accepting deals to move their businesses out of the Iron Triangle at the end of January to get a supplemental payment from the city worth six months’ rent.

Some have not yet received any money or found a suitable place to move.

At the end of January Martha Gualotuna left her business, which she owned for more than 10 years. She agreed on a settlement that would pay her the supplemental payment, but had no new site to relocate to. She said she still has not gotten any money from the city..

“I have nowhere to go and no money to open a new business,” she said through a translator.

EDC spokeswoman Kate Blumm said payments typically take two to three weeks to be sent out after applications are received and verified for eligibility. In addition to the supplemental payment offers, the city also has two pools of money for businesses to relocate individually as well as in groups.

Blumm said more than 50 businesses have relocated from Phase 1 or are close to doing so.

“The majority of businesses in Willets Point have relocated or are preparing to do so, many with significant financial and other support from the city,” Blumm said.T he EDC has contracted real estate firm Cornerstone to relocate Willets Point business owners. Avella claimed many of the sites’ business owners have been shown by the firm are too expensive, inadequate for their needs or too far away from their customer base in Queens. Some of the locations were in New Jersey and Westchester County, Avella said.

“These businesses cooperate with each other and it’s like one-stop shopping for automotive repairs and parts. So for one of them to go to an individual location would mean financial disaster, even if they could afford to relocate,” Avella said.

Arturo Olaya, president of the Willets Point Defense Committee, has been pushing to have business owners move together to a site in Queens. He sent a petition to Mayor de Blasio appealing for his administration’s help.

“We’re asking for the benefits that we should have,” Olaya said. “At this moment we haven’t received any answer.”

Another group of more than 40 businesses called the Sunrise Co-op have been trying to relocate together to a spot in the Bronx, but have not been able to sign a lease on the new facility because of snags in negotiations with the landlord. Many of the group’s members have closed their shops, lured by the supplemental payments. They could be without places to run their businesses for months as the Sunrise Co-op’s organizers have admitted that if and when the lease is signed, the new facility will require a few months of work to make it suitable.

The Sunrise Co-op quietly filed a lawsuit at the beginning of February against the city and against the project’s developers, Sterling Equities and Related Co., in an attempt to put a halt to the entire redevelopment.

Marco Neira, one of the group’s organizers, said the only way the group thinks they will receive money to relocate is by suing the developers and the city.

“We have to go through the court to get a settlement with them,” Neira said.

The lawsuit contended the relocation assistance the city has offered has been ineffective and unsuitable for the businesses’ needs.

It also claimed the development’s proposed megamall is on land designated as parkland, meaning it would need the state Legislature’s approval to be built

Avella recently filed a lawsuit of his own against the city in an attempt to stop the megamall portion of the development.

He made the same argument that building the mall on land that had been marked as parkland on city maps would require the approval of the state Legislature.

Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at arobinson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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