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Queens Chronicle

Willets Pt. businesses quiet after deal on vote

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Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2008 12:00 am

With three of the largest businesses allowed to stay, the remaining holdouts in Willets Point seem to be waiting to see what will happen next.

Last week, the city made an 11th-hour deal to ensure its Willets Point development project would win approval from the City Council. Prior to the vote on Nov. 13, a deal was reached calling for 35 percent affordable housing and for Fodera Foods, House of Spices and Tully Construction to remain.

Opponents of the $3 billion plan had previously said the city’s proposal for 20 percent affordable housing was not enough. The other obstacle was using eminent domain, which allows the city to seize properties for public use without the owners’ consent. An appraised value is given, which is often a lot less than the land is worth.

The agreement with the three largest firms in Willets Point, amounting to almost 17 acres, ensures that the city has a majority of the 62-acre site. That will also save 1,300 jobs.

Interviewed after the deal was struck, Anthony Fodera, president of Fodera Foods, offered little insight into the arrangement, but expressed relief that it was over. “We are grateful to be here and to be able to grow my business,” Fodera said. “A lot happened in a short time. Uncertainly hung over our heads; now we can move forward.”

The City Council voted 42-2 to approve the project with Councilman Tony Avella of Bayside the only Queens official to vote against it. He was joined by Charles Barron of Brooklyn. “This vote will not ensure that one brick of affordable housing will be built,” Avella said. “This administration has a terrible record on making good on their commitments.”

Following the vote, the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association, which represents the 10 largest landowners, issued a statement that it was continuing to negotiate with the city and is confident “we will reach deals for the remaining landowners and encourage the city to negotiate relocation deals for the other business owners.”

But the fact that three businesses are allowed to stay while the other 247 operations must leave is not sitting well with many owners. Jack Bono, head of a family-run business, Bono Sawdust Supply Co., that owns one-quarter acre at Willets Point, called city officials liars and refuses to move.

“The city does what it wants,” Bono said. “I thought the whole area is contaminated.”

For the last two years, the city has indicated all businesses at Willets Point had to go so that a wholesale environmental cleanup could be carried out on the blighted land. Now, the city’s Economic Development Corp. says the three businesses that will stay are on the fringes of the project and work can be done around them.

According to an EDC spokesman, because Fodera Foods and Tully are located on Northern Boulevard and House of Spices on Willets Point Boulevard, they are away from the area where work is likely to begin first.

There is no time frame given the firms and it is believed they can stay indefinitely. Eventually, the EDC says, the businesses would be able to sell their sites directly to developers. When and how the cleanups would be conducted at those locations have not been mentioned.

Tully, which has two operations in Willets Point, has special guidelines. It operates a construction company and a waste treatment plant. The city is buying one property and has the option to buy the other. Tully will remain for an indeterminate amount of time, the spokesman said.

He added the city is continuing to meet with holdouts, but that within a year all businesses will have to get out. If agreements can’t be reached, the city will use eminent domain to claim the properties.

Jake Bono, Jack Bono’s son, indicated his business will not be moving. “This project is never going to happen because the city will never be able to take land by eminent domain.”

He said the Institute of Justice is working on the case and it’s his hope that “we’ll destroy eminent domain in New York.”

Jake Bono added that lots of Willets Point businesses are organizing on that front, but most would not talk to the press this week.

Ralph St. John, a general contractor with property in Willets Point, is unsure how to proceed. “I can’t think straight,” St. John said. “It’s a tough decision for me.”

He pays $24,000 a year in taxes and like other businesses there gets no city services such as sewers, sanitation and paved streets or sidewalks.

Joseph Ardizzone, the last Willets Point homeowner, is siding with the businesses that want to stay. He called the City Council approval “devastating” and very “un-American.”

Ardizzone believes the city has no real plan for Willets Plan and yet it is taking property away from owners. “This is a dictatorship,” he said. “I’m going to fight to the end.”

His family settled in Willets Point in 1932 and he remembers growing up surrounded by farm animals and wild pheasants. Ardizzone, 76, now lives on the second floor of the house he owns on Willets Point Boulevard. A deli occupies the first floor.

He believes many of the business owners are uncertain how to proceed, but he is determined to save his property. “The city is robbing us of our past, our present and our future,” he said. “I’m not optimistic, but I’ll do all I can so this doesn’t happen to others.”

Ardizzone called city officials “college-educated thieves” who have been lying about the Willets Point plans “morning, noon and night.”

He also complained about the city neglecting the area over many years and then labeling it blighted. With deep potholes and unpaved streets, to many it looks like a third-world country.

Many business owners believe the impetus for the project is the Mets’ new stadium, Citi Field, which is located across the street from Willets Point on 126th Street. Jake Bono and others think the project is just an excuse to turn the property into additional parking for the stadium, which is set to open next spring.

Most of the businesses on 126th Street are car repair and parts operations, many located in hastily constructed tin sheds and huts. They were illegally erected, but the city never enforced its zoning regulations there.

The WPIRA has said all along that if the city shut down the illegal buildings and put in normal services, the area would prosper on its own and there would be no need for eminent domain.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, however, has been pushing for the large development project for years, perhaps as a legacy of his years in office. He calls Willets Point, “the next great neighborhood” and has indicated he does not want to use eminent domain, but, “We have to move ahead and not stay in the Stone Age. We are cognizant of their rights, but we have to build for the future and we will do that.”

Another concerned Willets Point leader is Arturo Olaya, who representing the 200 tenant businesses. He wants the city to increase funding to relocate them and says, under the current plan, such firms will receive between $9,000 and $15,000 to move, which he finds inadequate.

Avella isn’t so sure the city will help the tenants, but believes they should be included in relocation efforts.

With the plan finally approved by the City Council, the city will soon begin its workers initiative and job search through a program at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. Workers will be paid during the 16-week program that will include English as a second language, immigration services and GED test preparation.

In addition, the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association in Whitestone has offered specialized training for the workers.

The city’s plan for Willets Point includes housing, a school, a small convention center, office and retail space and a hotel. Now that the proposal has been approved the EDC will issue a new Request for Proposals from prospective developers.

Seven firms were previously selected as finalists, but EDC now says they can revise their plans and new entries are welcome. The winning developer is expected to be selected during the winter. The overall project is scheduled to take 10 years to complete.

Welcome to the discussion.