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Queens Chronicle

Willets vote delayed; hunger strike ends

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Posted: Thursday, September 5, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 11:14 am, Thu Sep 12, 2013.

Hungry workers at Willets Point gave a big sigh of relief and decided to return to normal eating habits after the vote on the future of the Iron Triangle by the City Council was moved from Sept. 13 to some undecided date in October.

At Tuesday's City Council Zoning and Franchises subcommittee meeting Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-Corona) grilled developers and spokesmen from the Economic Development Corp. and the Mayor's Office on their plans to build a mall and highway ramps which would then allow them to build much delayed affordable housing units and community centers at Willets Point as well as their plan to relocate the estimated 120 to 165 businesses — mostly auto body shops that sit on the site just south of Citi Field — to another spot.

Relocation plans were why many of the Willets Point business owners — a large group that is part of the Sunrise Co-op, which formed to fight for an agreeable relocation plan — began a hunger strike last Friday.

"I think the hunger strike was really effective," said Ivan Contreras, community organizer and coordinator at Queens Housing Coalition who has advocated for the workers as well as organized town halls and rallies.

Marco Neira, the president of the Willets Point Defense Committee and owner of a deli there, said the group decided to stop its strike after hearing Ferreras question the EDC.

"We feel like they are going to take care of us," Neira said.

Businesses were told they would receive a more concrete plan on the move by next week, Neira said.

At the subcommittee meeting Ferreras asked why the EDC has contracted with Cornerstone, a real-estate firm, to relocate businesses during the last five years yet after $700,000 only 10 are in the process of moving.

"We paid $700,000 to move 10 businesses?" Ferreras asked. "I would question how we engage with Cornerstone in the future."

EDC President Kyle Kimball defended the work saying the money pays for outreach and ultimately the businesses canít be forced to move to one of the 140 new spots Cornerstone has identified.

Ferreras also asked how the move wasn't cost prohibitive.

The EDC said supplemental funds through them and Housing Preservation and Development are available and can be allocated to the business owners two weeks after they apply with the EDC.

So far $3.5 million is available for relocation.

Ferreras made a point that the businesses need the money before they can be expected to move.

The issue of moving as a group also was brought up — something the businesses were promised they could do back in 2009, if they organized as a group, Ferreras said.

"That canít be scraped off the table," she said.

Kimball said that there are three obstacles to group relocation: purchase or rent price of a large property; secondly, he said many site owners didnít want to work with groups of 50 businesses; and lastly, he asked how that business model would work.

"Relocation of five to seven clusters might make more sense," Kimball said.

"I can't say we will make it work, but you can't say we are being uncreative," he said.

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