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Queens Chronicle

City asks Willets Point businesses to start moving

Phase One tenants told to ‘relocate in the near future’; no help in sight

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Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 10:48 am, Thu Feb 21, 2013.

It’s not an eviction notice … but it’s close.

Tenant businesses in the Phase 1 area of Willets Point’s redevelopment received cryptic letters from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development telling them to pack up and get ready to leave. But help promised in 2009 has not materialized and attempts to relocate the businesses as a cluster have been slow-moving.

The letter, dated Dec. 6, 2012, asks tenants on city-owned property to “relocate in the near future so that the development stage of the project may begin.” It goes on to refer tenants to a “relocation manager” named Shirley Williams, located at HPD’s headquarters on Gold Street in Lower Manhattan.

But Williams has been missing in action from day one, according to sources.

Combined with the letter, it leaves many wondering when they’re supposed to leave, and where exactly they’re headed.

Tenants seem to think they should be packed up and gone by the end of the month, but HPD said no timeline has been given.

“We are working to advise occupants of their rights, and about all of the relocation services and benefits for which they may be entitled to,” said an HPD spokesman. “A vacate date hasn’t been set yet. Currently we are asking occupants to be proactive in this process, while attempting to provide enough time for them to use this information to make appropriate arrangements that best suit their needs.”

The lack of information has some wondering where exactly is help originally promised when a redevelopment deal was struck. The missing assistance includes a $3 million tenant relocation fund promised by then-City Councilman Hiram Monserrate in numerous on-the-record conversations as part of the plan that passed the City Council in 2009.

HPD, the city’s Economic Development Corporation and Office of Management and Budget do not mention any such fund set aside to aid relocation efforts, according to a Memorandum of Understanding circulated among the agencies. The memo projects expenses and offers a table of allocated funding.

The document was given to the Chronicle by Robert LoScalzo, a documentary video producer who has been tracking and researching the proposed Willets Point development since 2007 for an independent project. He filed a request under the Freedom of Information Law to find the $3 million relocation fund, which produced the memorandum.

HPD’s spokesman did not comment on the memorandum or the promised $3 million.

“Shirley Williams oversees a staff of property managers who are on-site on a near daily basis and are available to work with the occupants, answer questions and address their concerns regarding their rights and benefits,” the spokesman said.

Efforts to find a new home for the businesses as a cluster do offer some hope. The Cornerstone Realty Group, a firm enlisted by the city to assist relocation efforts, has found a plot of land that could be home to a group of Willets Point businesses, according to Marco Neira, who leads the Sunrise Co-op, a group of 60 businesses looking to move en masse to a shared location.

The 200,000-square-foot plot of land is in the vicinity of Grand Street and Metropolitan Avenue in Maspeth, and is currently the home of a school bus depot.

“The city is trying to negotiate on our behalf,” Neira said. The plan is to own the land outright. “We want to buy the land, and then we build it up. We don’t want to lease or rent from them.”

But the long-term prospects of businesses remain uncertain after they move. Individual spots for them have been found within Queens, with rents that are twice as high as what they currently pay. Neira said the city offers services to help the businesses see through their first month in a new location, but then they’re on their own.

“What happens the next month if they don’t do business?” he said. “They are going to die after the first month.”

The redevelopment’s passage in 2009 produced a plan with controversy that arguably overshadowed its ambition. The initial plan called for the redevelopment of the Iron Triangle’s entire 62 acres. But legal efforts led by opposition group Willets Point United helped stymie the redevelopment’s progress. The city subsequently split the project into phases.

Phase 1 calls for a 200-room hotel, 30,000 square feet of retail space, as well as a 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall and a parking area.

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