Workers, business owners and elected officials turned out Thursday in Willets Point to support a bill that would prohibit the use of federal funds for the use of eminent domain by cities or states when the purpose is economic development.
Holding signs and cheering speakers, the group gathered at a gas station on Northern Boulevard to again protest the city’s $3 billion plan to transform the 62-acre area, also known as the Iron Triangle, into a mixed-use development.
The city has said it will proceed with condemnation for the businesses that refuse to leave.
Though speakers lauded the legislation, which passed the House but must still pass the Senate, it won’t help at Willets Point. State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Whitestone) said the measure would not apply because proceedings at the project site have already begun.
Avella believes that eminent domain should only be used for “real public purposes such as building schools or roads, not to line the pockets of Mayor Bloomberg’s rich developer friends.”
Michael Rikon, attorney for Willets Point United, made up of members who do not want to leave, said 44 states have passed legislation against eminent domain and that it’s time for the federal government to act.
He pointed to the 2005 decision by a divided U.S. Supreme Court which ruled in favor of the municipality in a similar case in New London, Conn. It decided that economic growth qualifies as a permissible public use, permitting eminent domain.
Homeowners in the affected areas were forced to move, but the project never materialized because the main company involved left.
Rikon said condemnation “is unconscionable” for the mayor to use in a way that he said will hurt minorities and women. “While Bloomberg often talks of the city’s support of small business people, the truth is completely the opposite,” he added.
The attorney believes that using eminent domain “will have a devastating effect on the Hispanic community that works 12 hours a day, six days a week to achieve the American dream.”
Rikon noted that a WPU lawsuit on eminent domain is pending in the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division
Ben Haber, a Kew Gardens Hills activist, told protesters that he has no financial interest in Willets Point, but opposes the destruction of more than 200 small businesses and the loss of employment to thousands of workers.
“I am upset at people who believe a Gucci store and luxury apartment buildings serve a greater public interest than repair and body fender shops; who believe their constituents are the privileged few and fat cat real estate interests rather than the poor, the middle class and small businesses; and who knowingly participate in the prostitution of the time-honored concept of eminent domain,” Haber said to cheers.
Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) said he can’t live under the yoke of a government that supports eminent domain for such a project. “Families are suffering,” Halloran said. “The city neglected Willets Point for 40 years with no sewers or paved roads then called it blighted, which is utter hypocrisy.”
Marco Neira, a small business owner and president of the Willets Point Defense Committee, said it’s time the city stop harassing businesses there. “We are not criminals; we are hard workers,” Neira added.
He was supported by Tana Quillubangui, whose parents have a business in the area and speak little English. “Everyone is hard-working and we want to stay,” Quillubangui said.
The redevelopment plan is now scheduled to be done in three phases, though no developer has been announced.
Phase 1 involves using 20 acres across from Citi Field on 126th Street and calls for building 400 apartments, retail space, a hotel and two acres of open space.
Recently, the Federal Highway Administration announced it had approved new on and off ramps for the Van Wyck Expressway as part of the overall project.
The city’s Economic Development Corp., which is overseeing the project, maintains that it does not need to build the ramps for Phase 1, though some of the housing, hotel and stores are expected to bring in a lot of vehicles. The remaining phases include building a public school, 5,100 apartment units and a small convention center.
The city still needs approval from the state Department of Transportation on the ramps, but with the federal agreement, that is not expected to be a problem.
WPU, however, opposes the ramps and believes the expressway will not be able to handle the estimated additional 80,000 cars a day that would use them.