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Lopsided approval take shape in boro

The City Council’s nearly unanimous vote last Thursday to approve the redevelopment of Willets Point has paved the way for a massive mixed−use neighborhood featuring more than 1,900 units of affordable housing.

The Council voted shortly before 4 p.m. 42−2 in favor of the project with the only dissenters being Councilmen Tony Avella (D−Bayside) and Charles Barron (D−Brooklyn), who cited the potential use of eminent domain as their primary reasons for opposing the plan.

In the end, much of the anticipated drama surrounding the vote was swept away when Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D−East Elmhurst) reached an accord with the city Nov. 12 and rallied the support of most of his colleagues behind him.

The agreement on the affordable housing element, struck in the days before the vote, stipulates that 35 percent of the 5,500 housing units proposed for the Willets Point redevelopment will be available to families earning less than $60,000 per year.

In addition, 800 of the affordable housing units will be set aside for families earning between $23,000 and $46,000 per year, the most at that income level to have been included in a city project.

Although there was a heavy police presence in the balcony of City Hall, where dozens of Willets Point business owners and workers watched as the votes were counted, the mood was more reminiscent of a funeral as they saw their future decided for them.

On the Council floor, the atmosphere was decidedly different. Monserrate and members of the city Economic Development Corp. were showered with praise by fellow city officials, affordable housing advocates and labor leaders, congratulating them on pushing through one of the largest and most complex projects in recent memory.

Though several Council members said they were uncomfortable with the inclusion of eminent domain in the project, with the exception of Avella and Barron, each of them ultimately declared that the positive benefits for the city and Queens outweighed the specter of invoking the controversial practice and voted to approve the plan.

“While I would agree it isn’t perfect, this is the best possible plan as we move forward,” Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D−Forest Hills) said. “This is a great day for Queens.”

Following the vote, Crown Container co−owner Jerry Antonacci left the chambers and solemnly peered over the railing surrounding a grand stairwell at the center of City Hall.

“We hope [the city] will do the right thing,” he said. “We hope they’re going to stay true to their word.”

Crown Container still does not have a deal with the city.

Altagracia Perez of Queens Congregations United for Action, who fought hard for affordable housing in the project, said the approval, coupled with an agreement to bolster low−income housing, was a testament to community activism’s merits.

“I’m definitely satisfied. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but 35 percent affordable housing is great,” Perez said. “If we hadn’t been after them, they wouldn’t have taken us into account.”

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

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