They came for information and answers, but the majority of attendees at Tuesday night’s Queens Housing Coalition meeting in Woodside were already very familiar with the plan, approved in a different form by the City Council in 2008, to build a mall, retail spaces and housing at Willets Point.
During a question-and-answer segment many speakers asked for the representatives from Related Companies and Sterling Equities, called the Queens Development Group, which plans to revamp a 23-acre plot on the north side of Citi Field and the parking lot on the south side of the stadium, to consider the people. The speakers included an undocumented worker, Marco Neira, who owns one of the many auto shops that dots Willets Point, and the only resident of the area, 80-year-old Joseph Ardizzone. They made passionate speeches about the need for affordable housing instead of a mall.
Last year the city announced that it was pushing back the housing component until the project’s final phase, years down the road.
Queens Housing Coalition coordinator Ivan Contreras began the informational meeting — translated into Spanish and Korean — by saying, “We will finally understand how the project will affect our lives.”
But many speakers said they knew the $3 billion redevelopment originally proposed by Mayor Bloomberg’s administration would not positively impact them.
“The project is really opposed by many people,” Ardizzone said.
A representative for the developer, Ethan Goodman, laid out a five-step plan poetically named the “Expanded Vision” — because it’s the plan “approved in 2008 and then even more,” he said.
The first step would remediate 23 polluted acres of Willets Point. Until 1932, ash from burned municipal waste was dumped on the site. From then on the land has been tainted by petroleum from the many auto repair shops there. QDG will not clean the other 38 acres, because the city is not selling that land yet, Goodman said.
Next developers would transform 126th Street into an area with a 200-room hotel, 30,000 square feet of retail space and restaurants and an interim 20-acre surface parking area that can be converted to recreational use when the Mets are not playing at home.
The old parking lot called Willets Point West would become a “destination,” Goodman said — a million-square-foot entertainment and shopping space. He never said “mall,” but several audience members shouted out the word.
Once the entertainment center is built, the city will build new exits off the Van Wyck Expressway. A few-years-old city environmental study states construction would not be necessary until the mall is wrapped up.
The last and fifth step would be to construct 2,500 housing units, 875 of them denoted as affordable, additional retail and a school for about 1,000 students. That step is planned to start in 2025.
“Why don’t we start with affordable housing and then the mall?” meeting attendee Dania Joaquin asked.
“The answer is simple,” lawyer Jesse Masyr said. “It’s not responsible to let people live in an area with 100 years of pollution.”
People yelled out that that didn’t answer the question.
The question was posed again by another speaker.
“If they build exits off the Van Wyck three years earlier, we will construct housing three years earlier,” Masyr said.
The question was asked in a slightly different way again. Masyr added housing could be built instead of the hotel in step 2, but it would not have a support system, healthcare or a school.
Another point of contention remains what would happen to the business owners in Willets Point.
“What is going to happen to us when the building starts?” Neira asked. “We won’t get the jobs because we are undocumented.”
The plans would create 7,100 permanent jobs and 12,000 construction jobs, according to the city’s Economic Development Corp. In 2008 Small Business Services, along with the EDC, began a worker assistance program that offers English classes, job training and placement and referrals to immigration services. Workers have been critical of how effective those services are.
“I think the man knows the answer to his question,” Masyr said. “His attorney has been working with the city. It’s between the city, the workers and the businesses.”
A main point of the presentation that Goodman stressed was that the plan would not touch any green space in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Willets Point West is technically public land although it’s covered with pavement not grass. Goodman reiterated that point again at the end of his presentation.
“No open space will be touched,” Goodman said.
The map Goodman showed of the park did not point out the proposed Major League Soccer stadium that could develop 10 to 13 acres on top of the Pool of Industry in the park.
Three approvals need to be vetted before the Iron Triangle project will commence: The environmental review needs an OK. Secondly, the city must rezone Willets Point to allow surface parking, which would accommodate the shift of the Citi Field parking lot from Willets Point West, the spot of the proposed mall, to Willets Point. Lastly, the lease for Willets Point West must be modified.