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City's Papers Pulled Less Than a Week before Scheduled Hearing

NEW YORK CITY WITHDRAWS ITS WILLETS POINT EMINENT DOMAIN PAPERS FROM COURT

City Hall Vacillation: Willets Point Redevelopment Possibly Off, Then On

By Carol W. LaGrasse

Late in the day on Wednesday, May 2, the news arrived here that less than two hours earlier the City of New York had withdrawn its eminent domain papers against the Willets Point property owners in Queens County from the Appellate Court in Brooklyn. The following Monday was to be the hearing of the property owners' case, Serrano v. The City of New York, challenging the city's determination to wipe out much of the Willets Point community of small auto repair and related businesses to redevelop the area opposite the Mets' Citi Field.

In vain those of us concerned about the city's intentions of the searched for information. No announcement from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office was forthcoming. The newspapers abounded with confusing information:

Back on page 17 of the New York Region edition of The Wall Street Journal on May 3 ran the headline, "Deal Is Near to Develop Willets Point" under the byline of Eliot Brown, citing various sources. The bias of the article was apparent in its reference to the Willets Point property owners: The article stated that because of the changes the Bloomberg administration is making in conjunction with the Related Cos. and a real-estate firm controlled by owners of the New York Mets, "the city and Related are likely to head back to the City Council for another review process and approval-not a certainty amid vocal opposition from a handful of businesses still operating in Willets Point."

But it is hardly a "handful" of businesses that crowd Willets Point. The small businesses that make up the unique character of the community are still there.

When my husband Peter and I arrived at Willets Point on May 8 to catch the television interview of Michael Rikon, the attorney for the eminent domain appeal by members of Willets Point United, the same thriving automotive-related and other small industrial shops we saw last spring were packed together with no vacancies and doing business, one after the other on 126th Street opposite the entrance to Citi Field, and everywhere else we drove and looked around the community. We were greeted by several of the proprietors and property owners, who thanked us for the amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief that PRFA submitted in support of their eminent domain appeal and who had gathered in front of the entrance to the automobile upholstery and interior restoration business where the cameras were set up.

In contrast to The Wall Street Journal's professed stance in support of free enterprise, the paper missed the achievement of Willets Point, a free association of interrelated small businesses, perhaps unequalled in a its concentration, prospering and buzzing with activity, crowded with eager customers, in spite of the city's forty-plus years of withholding basic services such as pavement and sewers.

The roster of major developers referenced in the article seemed to convey a sense of certainty to the plan to replace the Willets Point community with apartments, stores and a hotel, but other details contained in the article implied uncertainty, such as the reference to "heavy environmental contamination at the site" and the need for basic infrastructure with soil "needing to be trucked there to raise the ground level." Issues along this line were part of the environmental arguments raised in the plaintiffs' challenge to the eminent domain. The mayor's spokesperson, Julie Wood, was quoted as stating, "We're very close to having a deal in place that will transform Willets Point into New York City's next great neighborhood…" Yet, in contrast to the bloated "next great neighborhood" declaration, the final point in the article was telling: The development company "also won a bid to develop the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, which was rejected by the City Council."

The coverage of Willets Point appeared on the front page of two of the local weeklies on May. The Queens Chronicle's headline declared "Eminent domain is off the table: Mayor backtracks on plans for Willets Pt. as developer is named soon." The weekly presented the news from the viewpoint of the people of Willets Point, with a bustling photo of one of the streets dominating page one, captioned "Willets Point is filled with auto repair and parts shops. There are no sidewalks or sewers and streets are not maintained."

After pointing out that the mayor's office told the court it was dropping the condemnation process shortly before the Willets Point United members' appeal was to be heard, the article, by Liz Rhoades, stated:

"WPU attorney Michael Rikon said Wednesday the group claims full victory. 'It is really unusual and rare to have this kind of victory,' Rikon said. 'And we will be asking for reimbursements, for legal fees, about $600,000.'"

This article stated that Mr. Rikon said that the city leaked information about potential developers to some media in an attempt to downplay the city's dropping its condemnation. "'The city knew it was going to lose the case,' Mr. Rikon said." He explained mistakes the city made, especially failing to include an interpreter at the public hearing, considering that Willets Point had 150 Hispanic business owners.

The article also quoted Mr. Rikon's insight about the city's plans to seek a zoning change to allow a shopping mall and additional parking for Citi Field. He said that some WPU members had claimed for years that that was the real reason for the redevelopment, but was hidden because eminent domain cannot be used to develop a private project.

This article also pointed to the irony of the city calling Willets Point "blighted" when it announced its plans for redevelopment, considering that the city never fulfilled its obligation to put in sidewalks or sewers or other improvements to the streets.

Another paper, The Whitestone Times, has the masthead subscript, "The Newspaper of Whitestone & College Point," the latter being my original hometown. This weekly also took the time to get information directly from the property owners who are fighting the city's eminent domain and their attorney Michael Rikon, thus avoiding the one-sided approach to information-gathering in The Wall Street Journal's coverage.

"Property owners in Willets Point are rejoicing after the city dropped its bid last week to use eminent domain in the Iron Triangle, but the decision does not mean the city is turning its back on redevelopment," began the article on page one. This article stated that the redevelopment project would "take the place of the auto shops and pockmarked streets in the neighborhood." And the article stated that the city could reopen another eminent domain proceeding, which was not precluded by a stipulation that attorney Rikon signed on May 2. This article pointed to the jubilance of Mr. Rikon: "We won," he said. The article was more forthright than The Wall Street Journal, quoting the mayor's spokesperson and the Journal report, on the change in the project to allow the shopping mall, but said the exact nature of the plan could not be independently confirmed.

A third weekly, the Northeast Courier, had the headline on the third page "Eminent Domain dead, but Willets Point will still proceed." The article by Liam La Guerre included an important observation from Mr. Rikon: "They cannot condemn this property…That would require starting from square one." And his reaction to the city's withdrawal of its eminent domain papers was quoted: "My reaction was surprised, but I understood because there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to win."

This short article seemed to look toward the completion of the city's redevelopment of Willets Point, referring to it as "revitalization," which is a distortion, considering Willets Point's remarkable vitality right now. The article quoted the same statement released by the city's spokesperson about the deal being very close to "transform" Willets Point to the "next great place."

On the other hand, Mr. Rikon was quoted denying that the project was possible for the estimated $3 billion and pointing to the city's unfairness to the property owners.

The writer closed the article by bolstering the city's position with a short remark about the plans from the New York City Economic Development Corporation for "a full makeover" of Willets Point. Like the articles in the other two local weeklies, this article fairly gave both sides of the news.

All of these reports were intensely read, but it was impossible to know what the city's new plan was or whether this was the real reason why it suddenly withdrew its eminent domain papers from the appellate court. It did not appear to us that the city could win in court against the finely honed appeal by the Willets Point plaintiffs. Maybe the mayor rushed out some information about his supposedly big new plan as damage control.

On May 17, the Greater New York section of The Wall Street Journal carried the page one headline, "A Curve Ball In Willets Plan" by Mr. Brown. The opening paragraph should be quoted:

"New York City officials are shaking up one of Major Michael Bloomberg's key development priorities, putting off for years the creation of a new neighborhood in Queens' Willets Point and calling first for a large retail center next to Citi Field."

The 800,000 square feet proposed retail center would be west of Citi Field, whereas Willets Point is in the opposite direction, to the east of Citi Field. The proposal reported on May 17 would put off most redevelopment of Willets Point until 2015.

However, the redevelopment would be preceded by environmental cleanup of a 20-acre site that is part of Willets Point's 61 acres. This site would be first developed with new parking to replace that eliminated by building the large retail center, plus a small hotel and a small amount of retail on the 20 acres. After all this is complete, the developers would be allowed to construct 400 apartments and 680 square feet of retail in more of the area of Willets Point. This would continue to grow. This plan was said to be a tentative deal by the city with the Related Cos. and the controlling owners of the New York Mets.

The article pointed to the many uncertainties that could emerge in the long time period ahead and called to mind other giant city projects that are held up or dragging on for years.

Although the source for this information was not given, Michael Gerard, the attorney specializing in environmental law, who with lead attorney Michael Rikon represented the Willets Point business owners, was quoted. He said, "The small business owners don't want to leave and will continue to fight any efforts to take their property."

During May the news ultimately conveyed the picture that the city's redevelopment was not a certainty. But in June the plans were said to be going full bore. Newsday's June 15th article by Anthony M. Destefano conveyed Mayor Bloomberg's certainty. But not without elaborating with a disdainful editorial remark about Willets Point in the short opening paragraph:

"An ambitious $3 billion project would transform Willets Point—a sprawling warren of auto body shops, dilapidated buildings, rutted roads and the occasional junkyard dog—into a modern retail and entertainment complex around Citi Field."

Contrast this ugly, uncalled for attack with the beauty that my husband Peter remarked about when we were in Willets Point last May. He said that he "never saw so much community" as in Willets Point. The streets are crowded with customers from the immediate area and surrounding states. The people who come for these services say that there is no place like Willets Point to get their car repaired, refinished, and to buy auto parts. The businesses are the pride of their owners.

Newsday continued, stating that Mayor Bloomberg officially announced his plans for Willets Point at a breakfast forum somewhere in Queens. He combined scorn for the community with his self-aggrandizing, visionary outlook:

"Today the 'valley of ashes' is well on its way to becoming the site of historic private investment, major job creation and unprecedented environmental remediation," were some of Mr. Bloomberg's words, harkening to F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby."

But Willets Point is not the valley of ashes. The location of the city's gigantic early twentieth century landfill in the swamp west of Flushing River has long achieved its glory and left behind Fitzgerald's visualization as the "valley of ashes" The city landfill, which was south of Willets Point, was built up so high that the land where it was located ultimately became a gentle hill. The landfill became the site of the 1939 New York City World's Fair, and again, after serving as a popular park for over two decades, was the site of the World's Fair in 1964-65.

According to the Newsday article, the mayor's plan, with the same features described in the May 17 Wall Street Journal article, is to be carried out and its financing guaranteed by the Queens Development Group, a joint venture of the owners of the Mets and Related Companies, described as a developer in Manhattan.

The writer squeezed his own personal distortion directed against Willets Point's businesses into the short article:

"The project was approved by the city in 2008, but faced unsuccessful legal challenges from property owners." (The legal challenges cannot be characterized as "unsuccessful." As described above, the City of New York withdrew its legal papers a few days before the eminent domain appeal was scheduled to be heard in the appellate court.)

Mr. Bloomberg boasted that about 95 percent of the land in the eastern zone has been acquired by the city through purchases. The reference to this large percentage of acquired land may be misleading because it could refer to spacious parcels in the northeastern corner of Willets Point distant from Citi Field that were occupied by large industrial owners to whom the city quickly gave extremely favorable deals. These large industrial businesses were not part of the small business community of automotive repair shops and the like and were not located within the key 20-acre area in the path of the first phase of the redevelopment.

The progression of the articles, with the contrast in fairness and viewpoint between the major dailies and the local weeklies, vividly depicts the uncertainty that the Willets Point business owners continue to face. The meanness reflected in the Mayor Bloomberg's and the Newsday reporter's statements illustrate the harsh attitudes behind the hurdles that the business owners are determined to overcome. The brilliance and principle of their attorneys and leaders are on the side of Willets Point's small business owners and time is their ally.

 

- June 20, 2012


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