Citi Field looms large in the distance beyond Javier Tomala’s two tiny auto shops in Willets Point and in his life as well.
The Mets’ owners are scheduled to start relocating the businesses on this tract of scrappy junkyards, auto shops and factories starting in February 2013 to make way for Phase 1 — a hotel and retail space. There is no relocation timeline for property owners and tenants outside of Phase 1, according to Benjamin Branham, spokesman for the Economic Development Corp., the nonprofit tasked with facilitating the city’s project. A total of three phases of redevelopment are planned to be completed by 2032.
The city chose Sterling Equities, owners of the Mets, and The Related Companies to invest $3 billion overhauling Willets Point, also installing a mall west of the stadium and parking to the south.
Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has long championed the plan to gut the polluted peninsula that lacks basic infrastructure suchas sewers and paved roads. When announcing the developers in June, he touted the “major job creation and unprecedented environmental remediation” the project would foster.
However for Tomala, 46, and his family, this means they will have to abandon their two auto body shops that they’ve operated in Willets Point for 13 years. In the 60-acre-Willets Point area there are 250 businesses that are mostly owned and operated by working class Latino immigrants who will face limited options after being forced out.
Javier and his wife Silvia joined outraged Queens residents at a packed community forum at Our Lady of Sorrows church in Corona two weeks ago protesting the developments. Residents and community leaders said they wanted the promised affordable housing not a mall.
Where Tomala’s Speed Muffler Tire shop sits is“controlled by the City” and the parcel where Tomala Muffler Tire shop is located is “outside of Phase 1 and is privately owned,” Branham said.
Javier Tomala currently pays $1,900 and $1,600 for his two shops — Tomala Muffler Tire and Speed Muffler Tire. Leases for comparable auto shops in Western Queens cost at least $5,000, according to Sergio Aguirre, a community organizer with the Willets Point Defense Committee, which represents local businesses and employees. He pointed out that the city is offering to cover up to $4,000 of first month’s rent in a new location plus moving costs.
“It’s a joke,” says Aguirre, “it’s nothing. If you want to rent a shop in Queens you need to pay in advance at least four or five months of rent. And the rent is very expensive outside of Willets Point.”
Tomala emphasized that in addition to being more expensive, the new spaces he’s looking at on Northern Boulevard from Corona to Woodside are much smaller.
“There’s nothing good,” Tomala said. “The rent is $8,000 a month.” He estimated annual gross revenues of $220,000 for one of his Willets Point shops.
His search is further complicated by the lack of an official end of his lease, since the city has yet to firm up an official eviction date.
Aguirre is hoping to strike a deal with the city to move some of the local businesses to a comparable site in nearby Maspeth. Branham acknowledges that the EDC has been approached about collective relocation and said they “look forward to receiving and reviewing a comprehensive plan from (the companies) in the near future.”
“It makes me feel a little sad,” said Tomala’s son, Franklin, 28, who runs Speed Muffler Tire. “We’ve been working in this area with our families. Many of the people will end up without a job.”
The city has offered area employees free English and GED preparation classes, job-placement assistance and skills training through a $2.5 million program at LaGuardia Community College. Branham said that 582 workers have registered for these courses and 440 have taken advantage of them.
But Aguirre dismissed these programs as hollow gestures. He said initially the skills classes were only taught to his Spanish-speaking neighbors in English — they’re now offered in Spanish as well — and that the programs have been of little help retraining the workers.
The Spanish classes didn’t help Rahul Akbari, 28. The Afghan immigrant manages AGFA Auto Body in Willets Point and said, “I speak Hindi, Pashto — seven or eight languages — but not Spanish.”
Despite the obvious toll eviction will take on Willets Point businesses, some residents are happy to see them go.
“Take everything down,” said Carlos Urbina, 58, of Corona as he was leaving the nearby subway station. “They put up brand-spanking-ultra-modern-new Citi Field. We don’t need poverty here…put in the Hilton, a Marriot, a mall.”
Jose Zayas, 53, of Flushing who was getting his brakes fixed in the junkyard agreed. “They could put condos or co-ops there,” he said. “The junkyard devalues the real estate.”
Aguirre argued that the city is actually responsible for the area’s rundown state, having neglected to invest in basic infrastructure for so long. Willets Point’s roads are still unpaved and only part of the area has sewers that were recently installed in preparation for the first phase of redevelopment.
“We know we are working in the worst conditions,” Aguirre said, “but we have to eat, we have to give food to our families … We need to be treated fair, not like animals.”