Willets Point in Flushing is about as close to a controlled economic experiment as can be found in the five boroughs. A 60-acre tract of landfill located in the shadow of Shea Stadium, the 13-block strip is best known for its dense cluster of about 225 car-related businesses employing somewhere between 1,200 and 1,800 workers on any given weekday. The auto shops share the strip with The House of Spices (America's largest Indian food distributor), a waste transfer facility, an MTA outdoor storage and parking area, several iron works and construction businesses and of course a handful of delis and greasy spoons (along with people selling from carts and coolers) to feed the mostly Hispanic workers.
Along with Industrial Flushing, Flushing Bay and Flushing Meadows Park, Willets Point separates Flushing proper, a thriving mixed-use area with lively street life, from Corona, an energetic blue-collar Hispanic neighborhood due West. Willets Point hosts just one official resident, Joe Ardezzone, the head of the Willets Point Business Association who's lived there for 73 years. Sometimes some of the homeless men who serve as hawkers during the day ("What you need? Transmission work? Three down on the left, the red sign...") spend the night inside unlocked cars.
Despite the roughly $1.1 million a year the area generates in direct tax revenues for the city, most of Willets Point has never been connected to the sewer grid (the only storm drain is used by Shea Stadium), so Porta-Potties and cesspools abound, and its roads are hardly paved nearly always flooded.
Other than a largely successful push by the city to reduce mob influence, The Iron Triangle, as the strip it's known, has been left to fend for itself, and a hardy culture of industrial businesses has evolved to profit from an environment most of us would see as uninhabitable. Squint, and you're liable to think it's a set from Mad Max.
So far as the Bloomberg administration is concerned, it's all blight. And the city, which has long aspired to redevelop the area, likes it that way.
The blight is what gives City Hall a strong legal case for using eminent domain to claim private property assessed at some $181 million (a figure that urban affairs and planning professor
Tom Angotti notes is comparable to other areas zoned for heavy industry) and to bring in private developers to remake the area wholesale.
In place of the ramshackle auto shops and their gray market ilk, Mayor Boomberg now envisions New York's "first green community" and "next great neighborhood." The mayor who's already used the blunt tool of eminent domain to clear space for, among other things, the Nets' new Brooklyn arena and the removal of the Fulton Fish Market to far less valuable Bronx real estate now has his sites set on an area that's managed to prosper in spite of the city's decades of determined indifference.
The history of city plans to get rid of the unsightly auto businesses date back to a Robert Moses initiative to place a stadium there that was thwarted in part through the efforts of young private attorney Mario Cuomo. More recently, Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff proposed citing an Olympic and football stadium there after their West Side proposal collapsed. Thus far, the business owners have fiercely protected what they've built and invested in.
The latest redevelopment scheme, a relatively little-noticed part of Mr. Bloomberg's NYC 2030 plan, is also stadium-related. Willets Point is adjacent to the Mets' $600 million new ballpark presently being erected, and the team has a deal with the city to pay exactly zero dollars of real estate taxes on the stadium each year, meaning New York must generate a subsidiary economy to recoup the infrastructure dollars and tax breaks it's invested.
Thus far eight private firms have submitted proposals for a $2 to $3 billion mixed-use development the city envisions as a privately built-and-owned upscale project including over 5,000 housing units (much of it below market prices), a half million square feet of office space, more than a million and a half square feet of shops and restaurants and a 700-room hotel to transform the area into what the EDC calls "a vibrant and attractive new urban community."
The administration argues that the area needs to be redeveloped at once in order to clean up years of oil spills and illegal dumping. But given that some 82 percent of the businesses in the Triangle rent rather than own, it's easy to envision the area transforming itself, with no government seizure of private property, in just a few years.
Instead, the Bloomberg administration is reverting to an M.O. of forcefully displacing politically unconnected private owners on behalf of wealthy and plugged-in new private owners, while purchasing the
backing of much of the usual resistance from the left by compelling the new ownership to include affordable housing. This also allows the
administration to tout the number of new subsidized units that have gone up on its watch, few of which are actually very affordable. Some 60 years into the city's endlessly subsidized eternal housing "crisis," the shell game continues apace.
Even under new ownership, Willets Point remains an unlikely home for a new luxury neighborhood, especially in a cooling real estate market.
It has served only by the long over-crowded, over-strained and unreliable 7 train, which has no express line (except during Mets games and the U.S. Open), and has been replaced by shuttle buses in much of Queens for what feels like nearly every weekend for the past decade.
As things play out, the years of willful neglect from the city and attendant environmental abuses by the businesses based there may prove to be Willets Point's best defense against this latest attempt at a hostile takeover. As Mr. Angotti has written: "Preliminary environmental surveys of the area have found a litany of problems. There are storage tanks underground, the soil is too soft to hold heavy loads, it's on a flood plain, and building heights are constrained because of its proximity to LaGuardia Airport."
Still, there's no doubt the land's value will skyrocket as soon as it's connected to the sewer grid and the nexus of city services, or it's known with certainty that it will be brought back onto the grid. Once that happens, it's near certain the owners will sell or develop, and the businesses presently there will leave.
But as with the West Side Stadium and Atlantic Yards, the mayor has been a friend only to well-connected big businessmen, not to business in general. Having inherited a booming real estate market he had little to do with but has taken great credit for, Mr. Bloomberg has ruled as a boss, doling out patronage to wealthy friends like his buddy and Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner, in the guise of an a reformer.
Since the businessmen who've invested in the Iron Triangle have nothing to offer the mayor, they must be replaced--and their property taken from them without their consent--by the "right people," those willing to pay the city off for the land-grab and then reap its rewards.
Save for subsidized housing and jobs-as-dole, there's increasingly little left in the "luxury city" Mr. Bloomberg's envisioned for the likes of the largely immigrant workers and entrepreneurs of the Iron Triangle, or for the rest of New York's striving classes.