Willets Point auto shop launches hunger strike to protest pending eviction

By Madina Toure

Sunrise Cooperative, a group of 48 auto shop owners in Willets Point, has been staging a hunger strike to protest their scheduled eviction from the industrial strip since Monday as part of an agreement with the city Economic Development Corporation.

In March, the group received a nearly $5.8 million settlement from the city for fire safety, sewage facilities, office space and equipment at its new 84,000-square-foot space at 1080 Leggett Ave. in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx.

But the future of the auto owners remains in limbo because work on the Bronx facility had not started yet and eviction notices have been prepared.

The evictions are part of the first phase of the $3 billion Willets Point Development Plan, which includes a megamall to be built on parkland, a hotel, mixed-income housing, community facilities and a convention center.

The court-ordered agreement specified that the EDC would pay $4.8 million and the Queens Development Group, the site developers, would provide $960,000 for their relocation and the renovation of the facility. The Sunrise Co-op was expected to contribute $143,000 and leave the site by June 1.

An EDC spokeswoman said the agreement was approved by the State Supreme Court, city comptroller, EDC’s board and each member of Sunrise Co-op and that the June 1 vacate date was clear from the beginning. She pointed out that the Sunrise group had asked to manage the construction work.

Marco Neira, Sunrise Coop’s president, along with about 10 auto shop owners, have been participating in the hunger strike at J.A.C. Global Corporation at 126-15 37th Ave. to send a message to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the EDC.

Neira said 17 auto repair shops were supposed to have been fully constructed at the Bronx space by June 1, but construction has not begun.

Sunrise said construction has been “suspiciously delayed” by the city Department of Buildings, which means the Department of Housing Preservation and Development can now evict the repair shops from Willets Point.

Eric Bederman, a spokesman for HPD, said the marshal sent out notices to the tenants last week. Neira said the shops received the notice May 28 and that six days from May 29, the marshal can close the shops.

The Sunrise president said the DOB has delayed the construction process because the Bronx building has a violation and does not have the correct certificate of occupancy.

A DOB spokesman said the Sunrise group has not filed an application to obtain a construction permit that would allow the certificate of occupancy to be amended, among other steps.

Neira blamed the group’s attorney, Harvey Epstein of the Urban Justice Center, for not properly vetting the building.

“You as a lawyer, you’re supposed to review the lease, find out all the violations the building has and then sign the lease,” he said during a news conference when the hunger strike began.

Epstein said Urban Justice Center’s role is to distribute the funds given to the Sunrise group by the agreement.

“We don’t do permits, we don’t do contracts,” he said. “We negotiate agreements.”

At the request of City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), who worked with the group to bring about the March agreement, the DOB’s Bronx borough commissioner is personally handling the processing of permits for the Hunts Point location.

Ferreras said Sunrise Co-op knew it would not be able to operate at its new location until several months after the agreement was made and that any break in the agreement by the EDC or Sunrise must be resolved among them.

“The Sunrise Cooperative has not met the requirements to operate legally at their Hunts Point location and the project cannot move forward until they do so,” Ferreras said in a statement.

Reach reporter Madina Toure by e-mail at mtoure@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4566.

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