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Selling Willets Pt. no easy task

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration spent hours in recent weeks convincing members of the City Council that the redevelopment of Willets Point would an essential part of the city’s economic future. With the Council approval now in the rearview mirror, the city now faces a far more daunting task: Turning its elaborate sales pitch into a reality.

By a nearly unanimous vote the Council moved 42−2 to approve the project last Thursday, giving the city the green light to begin soliciting bids for its envisioned mixed−use neighborhood expected to feature 5,500 housing units, more than 2 million square feet of retail and office space, an 850−seat school and a 400,000 square−foot convention center.

Bloomberg and the EDC are banking on the project to create more than 18,000 construction jobs, 5,000 permanent jobs, more than $1.3 billion in city tax revenue and an economic impact of $25 billion to $30 billion over the next 30 years.

Just because we are in the midst of an economic downturn and we have to learn to do more with less doesn’t mean that we can afford to walk away from our long−term obligations,” Bloomberg said last week. “Our city made that mistake during the tough times in the ‘70s and it was a near disaster. And we’re simply not going to make that mistake again.”

But the project still faces significant obstacles.

Parcels owned by more than 60 property owners still need to be acquired by the city, and some are already pondering a lengthy court battle to protect their land.

“I ain’t going nowhere, that’s all you need to write,” said Jake Bono of Bono Sawdust and Supply Co.

The EDC warded off one potentially devastating issue in the 11th hour of negotiations ahead of the Council vote, when it negotiated a deal that will allow Tully Construction, House of Spices and Fodera Foods — the three largest property owners at the 62−acre site — to remain at Willets Point for up to 15 years.

The accord, struck the morning of the vote, was viewed as a winning situation for all involved.

For the city, it alleviated the need to spend a large portion of its more than $200 million property acquisition budget on buying up the more than 17 acres of land occupied by the businesses.

The trio of businesses, meanwhile, will be able to continue to operate for up to 15 years at their current sites, taking the pressure off the search for a relocation site and allowing them to sell the land they own directly to a developer once one is chosen by the city.

The EDC said that because the properties are all located on the easternmost portion of the 62−acre site slated for redevelopment, the city will be able to conduct a multimillion−dollar environmental remediation and implement much of the infrastructure improvements — such as a sewer system — needed to sustain the planned development.

The EDC said the deal alleviates the need to conduct costly and perhaps contentious negotiations for agreements itself. How fruitful the city’s negotiations with the remaining 60 property owners at the site, who do not have such an accord in place, remains to be seen.

“Bottom line is, we’re going to continue negotiations,” said Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber. “But we can’t negotiate with ourselves. I have land owners that won’t return my phone calls. We have land owners that won’t return our letters. One way or another, though, we’re going to try to get these people to sign.”

Even less certain is the fate of the more than 200 tenant businesses currently at Willets Point today. With the approval, the EDC said three separate workforce retraining programs — offered by LaGuardia Community College, the Greater New York Auto Dealer’s Association and the Hotel and Motel Trades Council — will begin as early as January while Cornerstone Realty Group has been hired to begin no−fee relocation assistance with the renting businesses.

The workforce retraining programs have received a bristly reception from many of the 1,700 workers in the business community. One worker said he is hopeful he will continue to have his a job in the auto industry he is reluctant to take the city at its word.

“It’s scary, you know?” said Javier Herreras. “I get a job here, I provide for my family and now someone comes and tells me you might not have that in a year or two years or whatever. That doesn’t sound fair to me. That doesn’t seem right.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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