Call him the last man standing. Joe Ardizzone has lived in Willets Point all his 77 years and says he’s not about to leave now.
The city, however, has other plans. It is moving forward with a $3 billion redevelopment project that will include housing, a school, offices and shops, a hotel and a small convention center on 60 acres now occupied by auto repair shops, other businesses — and Ardizzone.
Although the city has not held an eminent domain hearing, it is expected soon. There are approximately 52 business holdouts that have not reached a financial agreement with the city to move out.
And then there’s Ardizzone, who lives in the house where he was born on Willets Point Boulevard. He rents the downstairs out as a deli and restaurant.
“The whole plan is a complete horror,” said Ardizzone, who still works as a security guard to make ends meet. “They are talking about putting in 5,000 families and only 500 seats for a school. Where are the rest going to go?”
But his worst fear is that the area has no sewage treatment plant to handle the expected influx of people to the mixed development. “There are no basic essentials now. Why isn’t the city addressing how they are going to handle it?”
Ardizzone remembers growing up in a virtual wildlife sanctuary, with the thrill of watching migrating birds every year and frogs, quail and pheasants as regular sights. “I haven’t seen a frog here in 40 years,” he said.
His father built a couple of houses but the neighborhood never took off as a residential area. The factories and auto shops came after the 1939 World’s Fair. “I stay here by choice,” Ardizzone said. “I like the people around me. They are hard-working.”
He is angry over the way the city has forced the project on those who work in Willets Point. “It’s strictly a dictatorship, not the American way. They are taking property from us and the people are paying for it.”
Ardizzone vows to continue the fight. “The city should not be in the real estate business,” he said. “I’m not moving. I’m fighting for democracy and for all those who lost their lives fighting for it.”
Supporting him are members of Willets Point United, business owners who are fighting to keep their properties. Jerry Antonacci, owner of Crown Container, a waste transfer station there for 33 years, is one of the group’s spokespersons.
“It’s discouraging to live in a city where they don’t care about people’s property,” Antonacci said.
Last week, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought against the city by several Willets Points businesses, which said the lack of infrastructure violated their constitutional rights. Antonacci said the lawsuit had nothing to do with the city’s development plans. “We have been asking for basic services for years, like sidewalks and sewers and the city looks the other way. And now they claim the area is blighted.”
He is not surprised at the case’s outcome, but wonders where the judge is getting his information. The justice said in his ruling that no one lives in Willets Point and there is no nearby park.
Ardizzone does live there and points to Flushing Meadows Park, right across the street from Willets Point, as a major recreational area.
In dismissing the lawsuit, the court “recognized the city’s inherent authority in allocating important resources, like investing in costly infrastructure improvements,” according to the city’s Law Department. Members of WPU shake their heads and wonder why the infrastructure wasn’t planned sooner.
Two recent actions involving eminent domain are also of interest to members of the WPU. One involves New London, Conn., and the other a Brooklyn Yards case.
In 2005, the City of New London condemned houses for a private development. Outraged residents took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against the homeowners.
The neighborhood was demolished and a Pfizer research center was built. Pfizer recently announced it was closing the New London facility.
In the Brooklyn Yards case, residents oppose the demolition of their homes for a sports center. The state Court of Appeals ruled 6 to 1 to allow the project to continue since the site fit the legal definition of a blighted area.
Antonacci said the location is not that bad. “If you call that area blighted, then you have to condemn three-quarters of the city,” he said. “No one is safe. If the city wants it, they get it.”
Jake Bono, whose family has owned a sawdust business for more than 75 years, most of the time in Willets Point, said the outcome in New London, “goes to show it’s just wrong to take people’s property. The city failed and they destroyed lives,” Bono said.
He considers what happened in Connecticut “a victory, not a loss” for Willets Point businesses that want to stay. “It shows clearly that eminent domain doesn’t work. It fails,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which upheld the city’s use of eminent domain for private redevelopment. “What happened in New London made 43 states change their eminent domain laws to only allow it for a true public purpose.”
Antonacci and Bono believe time is on their side and the city will stall on the project because it doesn’t have the funding. “The city has no money and no plan,” Antonacci said. “It will be delayed for years and years.”
They both expect the eminent domain hearing to be held early next year and are still awaiting a judge’s decision on an Article 78 challenge. An Article 78 is used to appeal the decision of a local or state agency to the New York courts. In this case, the WPU challenged the environmental review done by the city in Willets Point.
“We’ll fight, but nothing is going on now. We’re just waiting and still intend to continue,” Antonacci said.
Janel Patterson, spokeswoman for the city’s Economic Development Corp., said businesses would be given ample notice about the hearing and that it has not been scheduled yet.