By Gina Martinez
Willets Point business owners stood together Tuesday to remind the city that they’re still open for business.
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) joined the owners at a news conference to celebrate the launch of the Facebook page “Willets Point: Open for business,” a social media initiative meant to inform the public that there are at least 100 businesses currently operating outside the Phase 1 development land in Willets Point.
The New York Appellate Court struck down an ambitious proposal for the site in July. Queens Development Group has been fighting to build a proposed mega mall and movie theater on the 30-acre site where Shea Stadium once stood. The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court in February 2014 by state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), along with the City Club of New York, Queens Civic Congress, members of Willets Point United and nearby residents and business owners, challenged the transfer of Queens parkland worth about $1 billion.
The lawsuit focused on the proper use of the land. The mega mall was slated to be built on the parking lot east of Citi Field, which is technically still parkland belonging to Flushing Meadows Corona Park and under lease to the New York Mets. Arguments centered around a 1961 law allowing the construction of Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows Park. In a 5-1 decision, the court decided that the developers needed consent from state legislators before moving forward.
Avella said he was there in the middle of Willets Point with about 25 owners to let everybody know that the auto repair shops remained up and running.
“They’re still operating,” he said. “The owners still employ people in the community. And they’re still viable – even if the city doesn’t pay the proper attention to them. This is the only area in the whole borough of Queens where you can go and pick up what you need in terms of auto repair parts.”
According to Robert LoScazlo, the “Willets Point: Open For Business” initiative’s objective is to correct a false public misperception that due to the city’s development efforts, all of Willets Point is now shutting down and devoid of business and to showcase the Willets Point industrial businesses as the welcoming and valuable resource to Queens and surrounding regions that they have always been.”
LoScazlo said he hopes the initiative makes city officials realize that they should commit to providing roadway repair, maintenance services and other municipal services that he said have long been denied to Willets Point.
Business owners said the demolition has affected business. Vijay Mankotia, owner of V.I.P. Tire Shop, said customers are not even sure his shop is open because the city has demolished a portion of Willets Point businesses that were located across from Citi Field.
“People see the big machines, demolition of the buildings – then people come to Roosevelt Avenue, they look at it, they go back!,” he said. “Even my own customers call me and ask ‘Are you open?’ I say, ’Still.’ But he says, ‘No, but when I come at the front, everything’s demolished, closed.’ So that’s the biggest effect – when people come in the front, everything is no business, no buildings – they go back.”
Of the entire 62-acre Willets Point area, the city purchased 23 acres located across 126th Street from Citi Field stadium, named the Phase 1 development site. The city evicted businesses that formerly operated in that section, and razed most of the structures.
The remaining 39 acres are filled with predominantly automotive parts and repair businesses, and the owners said that due to perpetual neglect by the city, the existing Willets Point community is forced to operate with substandard streets and roadways.
Sam Sambucci, a third-generation Willets Point business owner, said if people can see past the streets, it’s a wonderful, diverse neighborhood.
“I mean, right here on this block alone you’ve got an Israeli shop, this gentleman from India, Ecuador, Colombia, Germany,” he said. “This one block alone is quintessential New York! The diversity here is amazing. And the area should be embraced and helped. We do services for many people for cars. We’re here and we’re open for business!”
Reach Gina Martinez by e-mail at gmart