In the past five decades, Mayors Robert Wagner, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani and master builder Robert Moses have all pledged a sweeping redevelopment of Willets Point, vowing to bring a new life to the 61-acre amalgam of auto-repair shops and manufacturers by Shea Stadium.
But the site has proved time and again to be curiously impervious to a makeover, as every plan has been thwarted or abandoned.
Next week, the Bloomberg administration plans its own turn at the plate, with a public review slated to start Monday for a Willets Point rezoning, a process that represents one of the greatest hurdles for the city’s plan. With less than two years left in the mayor’s term, his administration is pressing to supplant the existing businesses there with a giant hub of housing, retail, hotels and office space, envisioning it as a complement to the new Mets stadium going up across the street.
Change does not seem like it’s going to come easy for the area, currently a bustling and poorly maintained industrial nest, where cars weave in and out of giant potholes and puddles on the uneven streets.
Three local members of the City Council—who are often critical to the passage of rezonings—last week announced their opposition to the proposal, claiming it unnecessarily gives the city’s Economic Development Corporation a green light to redevelop as it pleases, among other complaints. Organized labor, long an ally of any sort of large development, let alone a multibillion dollar plan like Willets Point, is withholding support in the hopes of getting wage and other guarantees. The largest business owners in the footprint are lobbying the city with former Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. and have brought on a lawyer to challenge the plan’s environmental review.
“I and several of my colleagues are not prepared to sign a blank check over to EDC on this project,” said Councilman Hiram Monserrate, who represents the area. “They have not, with any degree of specificity, outlined to me a plan that I believe that is beneficial to the community.”
The Bloomberg administration, surely aware of the stumbling blocks of predecessors, seems to be preparing itself for dissent. Earlier this month, the city held a press conference to tout the newly announced support of Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley. Mayor Bloomberg has unabashedly supported the use of eminent domain to oust landowners unwilling to sell their land, and the city has brought in a number of high-profile attorneys to work on the plan.
And to drum up support in the immediate area, the city has been giving funding to a Willets Point redevelopment advocacy group led by former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber confirmed, boosting an organization that has brought on a lobbying team of its own for the push. The city has approved up to $250,000 in matching funds for Ms. Shulman’s group.
SO WHY, WITH its oil-soaked soil and only one official resident, is Willets Point so hard to redevelop? After all, unlike so many embattled development projects around the city, the district—home to more than 200 auto-repair shops, a spice factory and a construction factory, but no sewer line—does not have a group of existing residents that feel threatened by a change in neighborhood character.
But the area, encased by two elevated highways and the No. 7 subway line, has an aggressive set of local landlords and business owners who seem to provide strong resistance to displacement.
In the early 1960’s, the businesses and landowners at the time hired a young attorney named Mario Cuomo to fight a plan championed by Robert Moses, which would have turned the area into parking lots and parkland as part of the 1964 World’s Fair. The future governor, in his first foray in the public eye, won a key case against the state that ultimately led to the plan’s demise.
“I told [Mr. Moses], ‘Look, we’ll do the following, we’ll put up Lombardy poplars around the place, we’ll put up a colored fence,’ Mr. Cuomo told The Observer. “Moses said, ‘That’s very imaginative of you, but no.’ … He was not used to not having his way.”
The businesses fought, too, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the city, under Mr. Koch and Mr. Giuliani, sought, respectively, to put a football stadium and a new Mets stadium on the site. The plans were ultimately abandoned after the sports teams lost interest.
Now, the Bloomberg administration is hoping a still-strong real estate market and attractive incentives to landowners—yet to be negotiated—will provide the financial stability to give the plan enough momentum to carry it through.
“We think this is a great way to create 20,000 construction jobs, 5,000 permanent jobs and a new community, and they have a significant economic value to the city long term,” said Mr. Lieber, the deputy mayor overseeing the project. “Is everyone going to be 100 percent happy? I doubt it. But I think the plan overall, for the majority, makes a hell of a lot of sense, and we’ve got strong support for it.”
By going through a rezoning before selecting a developer, the city is seeking to avoid some legal issues related to eminent domain, Mr. Lieber said, as the outcome of a different route would be more uncertain.
But it is the choice of this sequence—to rezone and then provide specifics with a developer—that has raised the ire of Councilman Monserrate and others, including nearby Councilmen John Liu and Tony Avella. The review process for a rezoning is the only aspect of a redevelopment in which the city legislators have a direct say, as the Council must approve any zoning change.
Mr. Vallone, the former Council speaker who is lobbying on behalf of the business owners, said such an action would never have gone through the Council on his watch.
“You could bet your bottom dollar that when I was speaker, we would never give away that land-use power without knowing that it’s something that’s good for the city and without knowing exactly what was going to be built in exchange,” Mr. Vallone said.
The decision to proceed with the zoning change will likely need the nod of Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Mr. Monserrate said he plans to meet with Ms. Quinn on Wednesday; and both he and Mr. Lieber expressed optimism that she shares their views.
Ms. Quinn has yet to take a firm public stance on the issue, and in a statement, a spokesman said the speaker looks forward to monitoring the process.
Should the city name more specifics in its plan before the rezoning, it faces a tug of numerous interests all pushing for a piece of the pie. Landlords, business owners, unions and housing advocates all want something to suit their needs—be it attractive relocation options, wage guarantees or affordable housing.
With the real estate market facing some instability, construction costs rising constantly and a substantial amount of environmental remediation needed, one wonders how much the city has to give. Mr. Lieber would not put a number on the potential city subsidy, only to say that it was too early to tell.