While City Council hearings surrounding term limit extensions have garnered most of the recent headlines, hearings on another issue that could have tremendous ramifications in Queens - the controversial Willets Point project - are starting to heat up.
For more than a year, members of the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) have been talking about its plans for the approximately 60-acre site that includes 1 million square feet of retail shops and restaurants, 500,000 square feet of office space, 5,500 units of housing and a convention center.
During that time, EDC has met with a number of community groups and local leaders as the project has received public approval throughout the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process. However, as recently as August, a majority of Councilmembers signed a letter voicing their opposition to the city’s current plans and the possible use of eminent domain to acquire land from the property owners currently at the site.
On Friday, October 17 - the same day of the Council hearing - EDC officials announced that they had reached agreement with four more property owners - Parts Authority who owns 24,739 square feet of industrial land, two large landowners representing 89,500 square feet of industrial land and another business owner who agreed to relocate his company to another site.
“We are pleased to have made good on our promise to reach as many negotiated acquisition agreements as possible in Willets Point, prior to the City Council’s vote,” EDC President Seth Pinsky said. “Our three latest agreements demonstrate EDC’s commitment to working together with local businesses and landowners to achieve fair and negotiated terms.”
However, including these recently negotiated agreements, the city has only reached agreements with eight of the 74 property owners at the Willets Point site, which is still a concern to a number of legislators.
“The city needs to understand that it would be far more reasonable to invoke eminent domain to take 10 percent of the property but right now they are looking at taking 90 percent by eminent domain and that simply is unacceptable,” said City Councilmember John Liu.
While the proposal could come before the entire Council for a vote as early as November 12, both supporters and opponents of the project continue to make their cases.
Former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, who is the President of the Flushing/Willets Point/Corona Local Development Corporation and a leading advocate for the project said that the Council’s approval for the project is crucial to the borough and city’s future.
“In such turbulent economic times, we must do everything we can to promote initiatives that will spur job growth and new business,” Shulman said. “We’ve faced times like these before and we all know that the way to reenergize our economy is through projects such as Willets Point.”
Meanwhile, Jack Bono, whose family has owned Bono Sawdust Supply for more than 75 years, said he would continue to oppose the city’s efforts to take his land.
“The use of eminent domain in this instance is unjustified, and my family and I intend to continue this battle until we win,” Bono said. “It is our ardent hope that the Councilmembers will support the businesses of Willets Point and will vote NO to Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to seize my land and my business.”