Willets Point Development Project Goes Into Extra Innings

View from Willets Point, looking towards Citi Field (Lauren Hard/ NY City Lens)

View from Willets Point, looking towards Citi Field (Lauren Hard/ NY City Lens)

A hodgepodge of auto repair shops line 126th street in Corona, Queens, steps from CitiField’s Bullpen Gate entrance. The shops, in the 48-acre area known as the ‘Iron Triangle,’ sell everything from tires to mufflers, and they have been struggling to keep their bases covered in recent years.

In 2012, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the Willets Point area was the inspiration for the “Valley of Ashes” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Great Gatsby.” Today, the Iron Triangle appears to be one giant pothole. The roadways do not look as if they are well taken care of and some of the small businesses in the area are more like metal shacks, with no heat or air conditioning.

More than a decade ago, the city started an ambitious $3 billion project to convert this pocket of wasteland, steps from CitiField, into a revitalized commercial area with a mall, new housing and a hotel.  Artist renderings for the redevelopment of the area first emerged in the early 2000’s, around the time when plans for Citi Field, home of The New York Mets, New York City’s National League baseball team, were first released.

Willets Point (Lauren Hard/ NY City Lens)

Willets Point (Lauren Hard/ NY City Lens)

Most of the drawings for the project, known as “Willets West,” included a large mall, which would be built at the foot of the stadium, where a parking lot currently stands, and a  convention center.

Ground was broken on CitiField in 2006 and the stadium opened in April of 2009. Public opinion of the baseball park has been positive; Business Insider even called it one of the 100 best venues in sports back in 2011.  However, the promises of what would be built alongside it in the artistic renderings never came to be.  The reason:  a tense legal battle against the city led by State Senator Tony Avella has brought the city’s development plans to a screeching halt.

“You’re taking away parkland to build a megamall,” said State Senator Tony Avella, who is involved in the lawsuit to stop the development. “Fundamentally, that’s a disgrace in my opinion.”

State Senator Avella, the City Club of New York, which according to its website, promotes “thoughtful urban land use policy,” and others,  filed a lawsuit in 2014, against the city, the mayor, the planning commission, the parks department, the developers — the Queens Development Group, LLC, Sterling Willets, LLC, Queens Ballpark Company, LLC and others.  The mission: to stop the development. Many of the area’s business owners, while not parties to the lawsuit,  have also come out swinging.

Arturo Olaya, owner Arthur’s Auto Trim, a car upholstery shop on 36th Ave, just off of 126th street, serves as the president of the Willets Point Defense Committee, a coalition of local business leaders which is leading an effort to stay put. In 2006, when redevelopment talk was at its height, Willets Point was home to 225 firms and an estimated 1,400-1,800 jobs, according to a study by Hunter College.  That number is disputed, however, by the New York City Economic Development Corp., which claims that there were only 80 businesses in Willets Point at the time.

Arturo Olaya, inside his shop, Arthur’s Upholstery in Willets Point (Lauren Hard/ NY City Lens)

Arturo Olaya, inside his shop, Arthur’s Upholstery in Willets Point (Lauren Hard/NY City Lens)

The city offered the small businesses in the area—the auto repair shops, the tire stores, etc—incentives to leave, including buyouts and retraining opportunities.  More than half took up the offers, opting to shutter up their shops and moving to other neighborhoods; but a few dozen still operate in the shadow of the stadium.

Olaya, who has resisted leaving, has a plastic box full of newspaper clippings and other paperwork, documenting every step he has seen since the designs for the area were introduced.  One document outlines the “Willets Point Worker Assistance Program,” which offers small businessmen in the area a chance to take courses at LaGuardia Community College in English since many of the workers speak only Spanish, as well as GED Preparation, immigration counseling and job placement assistance.

In a recent interview held in Olaya’s upholstery shop, Olaya explained that he attended one computer class about a year ago and when they asked who in the room was from Willets Point, he was the only one who raised his hand.

Olaya also pulled a sheet from the box that he put together himself in 2011. The flyer calls the redevelopment of the area the  ‘Willets Point Apocalypse’ and asks business owners to register with the Defense Committee of Willets Point for small businesses and workers. Oyala says at first, over fifty businesses signed up to be part of the Defense Committee. He also maintains that the city has treated the shop owners “like garbage,” and consistently has attempted to obstruct their business. Oyala even says police would close down the streets on occasion.

Meanwhile, as many of the small businesses, including Olaya’s, along 126th Street continue to operate, the legal battle to stop the development continues.

The lawsuit contends that “Willets West” cannot be built without going through the correct levels of approval, especially from the state legislature. This is considered a violation of The Public Trust Doctrine, as Senator Avella explained during a recent interview in his Bayside, Queens office. “They have to get state approval because [the doctrine] requires state approval whenever you give away parkland.”

The developers and the city, however, still insist that the plans to develop the area will benefit Queens. A spokesman for the Queens Development Group (a joint venture between Sterling Equities and the Related Companies) said the following, in an email, regarding the development:  “Willets Point represents a $3 billion investment in Queens that will reverse 100 years of pollution by cleaning up 23-acres of contaminated land and create more open space than existed previously.  The redevelopment plan drew support from a wide array of stakeholders including community leaders, labor and elected officials, which proves there is a strong desire for something transformative in this neighborhood. Willets Point will do just that: the project will bring thousands of good-paying jobs to the borough and will spur the revitalization of a community that has been neglected for far too long.”


Checking on things in the shadows of Citi Field. 

A photo posted by Lauren (@laurenxkate) on

But those, like Sen. Avela, who are fighting the plan, argue that the city’s plans are misguided.  “For years, the city said, ‘Oh these terrible businesses there, it’s a blight,’ “ said Avela. “But the city has never put in the sewers, never put in the roads, so it’s like ‘How can you turn around and say it’s a blight?’ its not their fault, the city hasn’t done its job.”

Avella also says what really upsets him is the fact that after the minority-owned businesses are kicked out, the city will probably then put in the infrastructure, benefiting the rich developers. “That, to me flies in the face of the American dream.” After being dismissed by a federal judge last August, the lawsuit involving Senator Avella is currently on appeal, putting the brakes on Willets West.

As for the repair shops on the east side of the stadium, things aren’t as cut and dry. The city has recently settled with 40 businesses to vacate. As confirmed by Harvey Epstein of the Urban Justice Center in an email, the city and Queens Development Group will give $5.25 million and the city is lending $550,000 for ten years. According to reports, Sunrise Cooperative, which represents the shops, must also contribute $143,000. These shops are what the city refers to as ‘Phase 1’ of the overall project and have agreed to vacate by June 1, and can no longer take legal action against the city. This settlement, however, does not include all of the shops that remain in the Iron Triangle.

The Mets have one of their most promising seasons in recent memory underway, while the humble shops that surround the stadium are still in search of a cleanup hitter.

Calls made to New York City Mayor de Blasio’s office were not immediately returned regarding this report.