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Queens Chronicle

Willets Pt. relocation deadline approaching

Sen. and owners say assistance funds are nothing but ‘smoke and mirrors’

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Posted: Wednesday, November 27, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 11:11 am, Thu Dec 5, 2013.

The ongoing Willets Point development plan is hard to pin down. It is a project with many moving parts that has been lauded as one of the best development deals made in the borough’s history, while at the same time denigrated as an attack on the lower class and outer-borough business owners.

But the colossal plan that has struggled to get its bearings for some time has gained stability over the past few months — after the City Council approved the revised version — and will take its first steps on Saturday when the first round of business relocations will be completed.

As part of the deal made with existing business owners in the Iron Triangle, those willing to vacate by the coming weekend will be given a year’s worth of their present rent.

Businesses that wait until Jan. 1 to vacate will be given six month’s worth of rent and any remaining businesses will be given nothing.

“I don’t understand why they are doing this to an area like Willets Point,” Arturo Olaya, president of the Willets Point Defense Committee, said. “The city is not doing for us what they did for the people in Manhattan because they have the money and we don’t. This is a smoke-and-mirrors agreement.”

Many of the complaining tenants, whose landlord is the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, are saying the deadline is too soon and more time is needed for the businesses to better prepare.

State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), an avid supporter of the businesses at Willets Point, hosted a rally on Nov. 20 calling on the city to extend the upcoming deadline.

“The current relocation plan falls far short in what the tenants need to relocate and what they deserve,” Avella said. “Many of these businesses have yet to find a place to relocate to, even with the city’s purported help, yet they are supposed to vacate in less than two weeks in order to receive full payment. This is obviously unfair and these tenants warrant the extension they are looking for.”

Avella is requesting that the businesses be given an additional six months.

“The amount of money we are being given is nowhere near enough for us to relocate,” Olaya said.

That has been the complaint of many business owners and with HPD issuing eviction notices and ready to commence court proceedings after the 2014 deadline, many are saying the city is leaving them high and dry.

The Economic Development Corp. is in total disagreement, saying the money is available, but businesses need to put the effort in to receive it.

The agency — responsible for allocating funds to businesses who apply for relocation compensation — said that there are no smoke or mirrors in the deal but they are not going to issue money without input from the businesses.

In addition, there have been complaints regarding the $3 million set aside for cluster relocation that allows businesses to move together. The EDC reports that this option was created in response to comments made during a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure hearing some time ago.

The entire debate has become heated and in the middle of it all is Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, who has spearheaded the deal with the developers and advocated for many of the added conditions — including increased affordable housing — to the original proposal.

“As part of our negotiations, the City has remained fully committed to assisting individual businesses and clusters of businesses as they relocate, and has partnered with Cornerstone Group to help facilitate the relocation process,” Ferreras said in a written statement.

“Cornerstone commenced its current round of business relocation outreach in August 2012, and to date, they have reached out to all tenant businesses on City-owned properties in the Phase 1 area many times to understand their needs, present possible relocation sites, organize site tours, make offers and negotiate on behalf of the businesses and help close deals.”

Despite Ferreras and the EDC’s claims, Avella and the business owners are not convinced.

“Cornerstone has received over $700,000 to relocate these businesses and there hasn’t been much movement on their part,” Avella said. “I filed a FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] request last year, wanting to see what they’ve done for these businesses and all I saw were individual listings that you could’ve easily found online. This is a joke.”

The senator has requested that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate Cornerstone Group and the role it has played in the Willets Point relocation. He also claims that his office reached out to Ferreras’ office but the request went unanswered.

In order to increase the amount of money received by each business — EDC does not have a formula to determine how much money will be granted to each establishment — Olaya and others offered selling the 23 acres of property to developers for a larger sum as a possible solution.

But last Wednesday at the Borough Board meeting, Queens delegates voted in favor of selling the chunk of land for $1.

“I am very angry, this is unbelievable,” Olaya said. “They sold it for one dollar? One dollar? They could have gotten much more and given us some of the money.”

While the first round of deadlines isbreathing down business owners’ necks, the wrecking ball and bulldozers are not idling nearby just yet.

Work will not commence until 2014 when Phase 1 — the demolition of buildings, remediation of land, the construction of retail and office space, a 200-room hotel and a temporary parking lot containing 2,750 spaces for those visiting Citi Field — goes into effect.

If Avella’s investigation and the business owners’ protesting fails, there is hope that Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio may approach the Willets Point development in a different way.

“This mayor is rushing this deal but with de Blasio coming in, I’m hoping things will be slowed down,” Avella said.

“He’s a good guy, a man who can help us, I think,” Olaya said.

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