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City returns to shutter more Willets shops

Tenants hold up a sign protesting the recent closure of several shops by the city Department of Buildings, which cited unsafe construction activities at the location. Photo by Joe Anuta
TimesLedger Newspapers

The city again shut down a group of Willets Point businesses that lie in the footprint of a $3 billion redevelopment project set to begin early next year, while talks about a detailed plan to relocate the auto repair shops to Maspeth have been stalled since October.

Inspectors from the city Department of Buildings, acting on reports from the NYPD, shuttered about 10 businesses citing unsafe construction conditions June 13, according to business owners.

“They want to kick everybody out this way,” said Marco Neira, a tenant in Willets Point.

The closings came on the heels of another round of inspections in May. Several shops were closed then near the corner of 37th Avenue and 126th Street, although the city offered to make repairs in that case.

The department characterized the latest round of inspections as routine, but business owners wondered about the timing.

The buildings housing the businesses have existed for decades, they said, but the violations are being issued about six months before developers hope to begin transforming 23 acres of the Iron Triangle into a new mixed-use neighborhood.

The Buildings Dept. has issued violations in several instances over the last five years, but in 2009, inspectors issued what are known as orders to vacate for several Willets Point businesses around the time the city was negotiating and purchasing private property for the $3 billion project. A report that year from the legal nonprofit Urban Justice Center questioned the timing of the violations.

“The timing of these mass closures with a renewed effort to acquire private land for a public redevelopment is questionable and it also may be illegal,” the report stated.

In one instance in 2009, Buildings ordered a property to be vacated and the city Department of Housing then purchased the empty property several months later.

Housing, which owns the property of all the shops recently closed, has not decided whether it will repair the shops in the current round.

“It is hard to prove they are doing something wrong, but does it raise a spectre of impropriety?” asked Ted De Barbieri, a senior staff attorney at the Urban Justice Center.

De Barbieri is legal counsel for a group of 52 Willets Point shops called the Sunrise Cooperative, which submitted a detailed proposal in October 2012 to relocate to a vacant property in Maspeth. The property is between 57th Avenue and Newtown Creek near the Kosciuszko Bridge, which is set to be replaced with a new span, but the construction did not appear to affect the plans outlined in the proposal.

The October proposal, which has since been modified to consider several other sites in Maspeth, pegged the cost of buying the land and constructing a new building where the shops would be set up in a similar arrangement to Willets Point, at about $18 million, though they are asking the city for just $3.1 million in a grant or loan.

“I think our request is modest compared to the scope of the work that is being proposed here,” De Barbieri said. “We think it is a good plan and we have asked the city to commit to it.”

EDC said it has been in ongoing talks with the Sunrise Cooperative and has partnered the co-op with a relocation company to try and locate suitable sites.

In addition, the city has been providing constant outreach services to other businesses in Willets Point on an individual basis as well as providing job training programs.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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