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Know Your Rights
Source: Queens Chronicle
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Both sides heard at Willets Point meeting

The meeting started at 5 p.m.on Thursday and stretched long into the night as residents and organizations [including Make the Road New York] gave testimony for and against the Willets Point redevelopment project billed as bringing the city’s biggest mall.

The public scoping meeting hosted by the Economic Development Corp. introduced how the organization plans on collecting data about the redevelopment’s environmental impact. People can continue to submit comment about the plan until Oct. 9 at 5 p.m.

A similar environmental impact study, like the one being started, was completed in 2008. Since then Mayor Bloomberg has added 31 acres of parkland adjacent to Cit iField to the project and split the plan into three phases. The new EIS, slated to be completed in February, would supplement the old one.

The proposal was met with intermittent audience objections saying the EDC was trying to move development along without public input, especially since many of Willets Points’ neighbors are immigrants who may not speak English.

There were Bengali, Cantonese and Spanish translators to help with public testimonies at Thursday’s meeting. Information about the plan was put online in those three languages along with English. Some electronic translators were also passed out by a separate organization so Spanish speakers could listen to the presentation.

The proposed project would redevelop 61 acres of Willets Point, 31 acres of the Citi Field stadium parking area called Willets West — public parkland located in Flushing Meadows Park — and three Citi Field surface parking lots on Roosevelt Avenue comprising an additional 17 acres. The completion date is estimated to be 2032.

There are three phases. Phase 1 would construct a 200-room hotel, about 30,000 square feet of retail space and a 2,800-space parking area to be completed in 2018. This phase would also build a 1.4-million-square-foot mall and 2,900-space parking area in Willets West.

Phase 2 would be completed by 2029. The plan calls for 4.23 million square feet of residential, retail and parking facilities plus offices, a hotel, a public school and parks in Willets Point, and put more parking structures for the baseball stadium on surface lots south of Roosevelt Avenue.

Phase 3 planned for completion in 2032 is called a “full build out” of Willets Point and the Citi Field parking lots.

The plan also assumes new on- and off-ramps for the Van Wyck Expressway would be completed by 2024.

Some community members are calling for a whole new EIS — not just a supplement —and a new Uniform Land Use Review Process application.

“The city and the Wilpons are attempting a bait and switch. Every single aspect of the proposal has changed since it was approved in 2008 — the location, the size, the type of building, everything,” said Donovan Finn, a professor of environmental planning and policy at SUNY Stony Brook and a Jackson Heights resident.

The EDC will do a new ULURP process, but this time will not need City Council approval, according to Columbia Law School Professor Michael Gerrard, with Willets Point United — the redevelopment’s main opposition group. Legal challenges by Willets Point United led to a court order forcing a second, more thorough evaluation of the land, sending the EDC back to the drawing board.

Some organizations spoke in favor of the development, such as Jessica Walker with the Partnership for New York City. She said the project would turn “Queens’ biggest eyesore” into sustainable development.

Thomas McKeon,with the carpenter’s union, whoused to walk to his job at Shea Stadium through Willets Point, supported the project on grounds that the development would clean up the area’s polluted soil. Past environmental assessments of the Iron Triangle, as the area is called, conducted as part of the city’s original redevelopment proposal claimed years of automotive fluids, a high water table and the lack of infrastructure combined to create a toxic mix underfoot.

Representatives from the Service Employees International Union 32BJ also spoke in favor of the redevelopment plan.

“The Willets Point project is an example of the type of responsible development that benefits New York City’s communities and families,” said Kyle Bragg, vice president of 32BJ. “This development will bring affordable housing that so many middle- and low-income families in Queens need.”

The 2008 plan had affordable housing to be built from the beginning. However, in June, Mayor Bloomberg announced the new plan, that does not add affordable housing until 2025.

“What this community needs is affordable housing,” a spokeswoman speaking for Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) said.

Many businesses spoke out against the project. In 2008 the city started an eminent domain proceeding against the businesses in the area slated for development that were not willing to sell, but it was abandoned when the plan changed. Now a new process will probably begin, Gerrard said.

“The city has pledged to find other locations to reopen their businesses,” Gerrard said. “It is certainly not happening, to the best of my knowledge. There has not been any serious contact with the smaller businesses.”

Martha Gualotuna, owner of Emanuel Auto Repair Corp., said she felt used by the Bloomberg administration.

“We are going to fight until the end,” Gualotuna said. “We are not going to leave Willets Point.”

Auto mechanics who have shops on 126th Street in the Willets Point area are worried about the development, according to Sergio Aguirre, a community organizer for the Sunrise Co-op, a coalition of 60 shops in the Willets Point area. The group is asking for help with relocation to Maspeth.

For the original article, click here.