Though the contracts have been signed and the variance has been approved by the City Council, business owners in Willets Point are not giving up. They want action to be taken by the city, and they want it now.
A handful of owners told their stories while supporters sat with melancholy looks on their faces, somberly nodding when their peers pointed out the hardships they all face.
Owners like Marta Gualotuna who has been asked to hand over her keys but has no place to go.
“It’s a lot of pain because Willets Point is being harassed by police and immigration officers,” she said in Spanish. “Because we are Spanish, the people are not taking care of us. It is obvious that in this case, we are being treated this way because we are minorities.”
Though the conditions varied slightly, the message was the same: The city is not doing enough to relocate and support businesses.
“If we don’t do anything to help these people, shame on New York City,” state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said.
Avella has been an avid supporter of the Willets Point United business owner’s group and has criticized the plan to turn the blighted area into a metropolis from the very start.
The megaproject is a $3 billion retail, residential and entertainment complex set to rise next to Citi Field
According to the agreement signed by the City Council — spearheaded by Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) — business owners would receive relocation assistance, including compensation and leads on available real estate.
Ferreras touted the condition as a win for business owners in her district.
“As part of my negotiations with the city and the Queens Development Group, the city has allocated a total of up to $15.5 million towards business relocation assistance, which includes moving expenses and support for Willets Point businesses, including those businesses that want to move together,” the councilwoman said in a written statement. “Additionally, the Queen Development Group has agreed to allocate $165,000 to the Queens Chamber of Commerce for outreach and support of local businesses.
“This joins the City’s commitment to allocate $150,000 through the NYC Economic Development Corp. to provide technical assistance to the existing Willets Point businesses in their efforts to relocate, and a supplemental allocation of $150,000 through the Department of Small Business Services to provide marketing services to the existing Willets Point businesses once they have relocated to their new location.”
But even the business owners who applied for the assistance and made the November deadline said they have yet to receive any money and are worried about what the future may hold.
“I have three kids,” Gualotuna said, choking on her words. “Three! I haven’t seen any money and I am not rich. I can’t afford to be out of work.”
What’s more, Sunrise Co-op, a group of 33 business owners who are relocating as a group to the Bronx, filed a lawsuit against the Queens Development Group on Feb. 4 claiming the Council did not know the full cost of the project upon approval, that there was a lack of lawful relocation plans for commercial residents — as required by federal law — that the Economic Development Corp. and the city did not properly take into account the socioeconomic impacts and the Industrial Development Agency granted tax abatements without following its Uniform Tax Exemption Policy.
This lawsuit comes as a surprise to many as it was filed quietly with no formal announcement. What’s more, the Sunrise Co-op had been seen by many — including other Willets Point business owners — as the city’s “poster child” for a successful group relocation.
In fact, during the sit-down in Avella’s office, some business representatives appeared disgusted at the mention of the group — Sunrise had always appeared to be very supportive of Ferreras and her relocation plan. Perhaps some viewed them as traitors.
Another point to be made is the cluster of large autobody shops that are allowed to remain in Willets Point may be creating tension in the area.
“That could be a possibility, a divide-and-conquer type of thing,” Avella said. “I’m not saying that’s what is happening, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
The senator accuses the developers and city agencies of taking advantage of the business owners, many of whom speak little to no English.
“I am very desperate and the city has to do something, something real,” Guatlotuna said.
“This really is a disgrace,” Avella said. “These people who wanted their own part of the American dream are being treated so badly and the comments that because they’re Hispanics, they’re being treated different, I think is true. Developers who have access to the political mainstream are going to make millions of dollars and we can’t take better care of these people? How selfish!”
Realistically, the Willets Point business owners and Avella acknowledge that the plan will go through but would like Mayor de Blasio — who has not publicly commented on the matter since he took office — to fire Cornerstone, the group responsible for relocating businesses and provide owners with suitable options.
“I want the city to sit down with each of these owners and come up with a site that they can easily locate to,” Avella said. “There are options out there but the city has to be willing to sit down and talk.”
Ferreras would not comment on any of the complaints made, but a source called a number of the comments made against her and the Willets Point plan inaccurate. She has said on several occasions that she is committed to the business owners.