Willets Point Story:
A Tale Of Two Business Plans
Point — few residents of Queens are likely to recognize the name. Fewer
still will have spent much time in the area.
walk east out of Shea Stadium after a Mets game towards the Flushing River
or stroll north from the green pastures of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and
soon you’ll find yourself in a heavily industrial environment where auto
repair shops, junk yards and gritty commercial enterprises abound.
Locals call it the Iron Triangle.
is not a walk anyone would want to take alone at night.
There is not a house in sight, and the only residents are scattered
bands of the homeless.
Willets Point is an important place.
More than a third of the borough’s garbage passes through the area
on its way to out-of-state landfills, and if state permission is
forthcoming, even more Queens waste will travel through Willets Point soon.
local developers, business leaders and elected officials are daydreaming
about what Willets Point could be. They look westward from the bustling,
vital and overcrowded streets of downtown Flushing and see a Willets Point
of the future — complete with luxury apartments, office towers and — who
knows? — maybe an Olympic stadium.
question that remains is whose vision will it be? And the answer is a source
of economic debate, and the winner will steer the course of a prime piece of
real estate in the middle of the borough’s bustle.
York City devised an unusual Fourth of July observance for itself two years
the fireworks burst over the East River, the City declared the massive Fresh
Kills landfill on Staten Island officially off limits to all new garbage.
the subsequent weeks the Department of Sanitation phased in a “temporary
plan” to dispose of the thousands of tons of trash City residents pile
curbside each day. The arrangement was simple and also daunting: each
borough would now take out its own trash using private carters.
Queens, that meant over 3,500 tons of residential waste tossed out daily
needed somewhere to go.
of the waste was diverted to two transfer sites within the borough — one
in Long Island City and the other Flushing — where it would be repacked
onto huge tractor-trailers before moving on to landfills in New Jersey.
Environmental, a Flushing company owned by Tully Construction, won a minimum
three-year contract to handle a portion of Queens trash at a waste transfer
site it opened in March 2001.
The facility, located at 127-20 34th Ave. in Willets Point, sits just
beneath the curved bowl of Shea Stadium.
the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) granted Tully
permission to handle 500 tons of waste per day, despite the vocal protests
of community members and politicians.
a year that number would double after Tully gained a larger permit — and
now Tully is seeking permission to increase capacity once again.
approved by the DEC, Tully soon will be allowed to receive a total of 1,495
tons of garbage each day, nearly tripling its waste capacity since the
facility opened two years ago.
week — on Thursday, Sept. 4 at 7 p.m. in the Gallery Room of the Flushing
Sheraton — Tully will stage the public hearing mandated by the DEC to
investigate the environmental impact related to the proposed expansion.
Local elected officials and representatives from Community Board 7
are expected to testify against the move.
7 District Manager Marilyn Bitterman illustrated the difficulty faced by
legal,” she admitted of the waste transfer station, “but we have to look
beyond what’s legal and into the future.”
Tully performs a necessary — and, for company owners, profitable —
service is beyond dispute, and even the company’s opponents acknowledge
that the location of the waste station — near the junction of the L.I.E.
and the Van Wyck, far from residential areas — makes it reasonably easy
for garbage trucks to come and go without rumbling through too many
neighborhood streets and disturbing homeowners.
those with a dream of development in Willets Point ask about the hidden
costs of allowing a garbage hub in their community.
consortium of business associations, led by Myra Baird Hearce of the
Flushing Chamber of Commerce, convened a luncheon in early August to
celebrate the unprecedented cooperation between State and City elected
officials from Flushing, business groups, community representatives and —
most importantly — City agencies guided by the Bloomberg administration.
set the tone early, and her remarks were echoed by nearly every figure that
essence, what we have now is a very unified community . . . we are unified
in wanting quality development,” she said, and went on to point to Willets
Point as “essential for our future growth.”
Assemblyman Brain McLaughlin, reflecting the heady optimism of the event,
said “We can create thousands of jobs, we can create an economy second to
none. We have to have the courage to stand up and say no.”
speakers mostly proposed saying “no” to piecemeal developers currently
active in downtown Flushing, buying up small properties and erecting
buildings haphazardly in the eyes of those with a big stake in the overall
with Tully’s application winding slowly towards approval by the DEC, a
more urgent need to oppose the workings of a state agency now looms over the
Flushing development enterprise.
of the people involved view the expansion of Tully Environmental as an
obstacle that might delay — if not derail — the whole initiative.
instance, the Muss Corporation owns a long unused 14-acre lot on the east
bank of the Flushing River south of Roosevelt Avenue.
At the luncheon, a representative from the company spoke glowingly of
mixed residential and retail use for the land.
since no one will move into condos overlooking the largest waste transfer
station in Queens, it can only be assumed that Muss won’t begin to build
them until Tully Environmental finds a new home.
the City now supporting development, it falls to State representatives to
garner similar backing at their level.
Assemblyman Barry Grodenchik said rather vaguely at the luncheon,
“We are going to need the governor’s help in Willets Point.”
a later interview with the Tribune, Grodenchik indicated the nature
of this assistance.
“What we really need in Willets Point is a regional authority that
the state will have to create,” he explained.
authorities, which are commissioned by the governor, have the power to
condemn property and exercise eminent domain — a move that could sweep
away Tully Environmental and other problematic establishments in the Iron
president of the company that owns Tully Environmental, Peter Tully, counts
himself among the supporters of redevelopment in Willets Point — and he
told the Tribune he has been for a long time.
factor keeping Willets Point from lurching forward into the future of a
greater Flushing is not the waste transfer station, according to Tully.
have no sanitary sewers, and that is unheard of in northeast Queens,” he
fact, he said, infrastructure improvements would render a State authority
unnecessary in Willets Point.
say we get our sewers and the roads are rebuilt.
I could probably relocate my transfer station and reuse the land for
something else,” Tully explained.
“If they would just build the infrastructure, there wouldn’t be a
need for an authority.
The development in Willets Point would just happen naturally.”
Tully Environmental, which is just a few hundred feet behind Tully
headquarters, it is hard to imagine an area better suited for a waste
transfer station. The facility
is little more than a plaza with a hangar-like structure in which city
garbage trucks unload their haul in large mounds.
Bulldozers, like worker bees, scoop the refuse into waiting big rigs.
foul odor of fermenting household waste is strong, but only while standing
near the hangar. Outside, it is
hard to see how Tully damages Willets Point any more than the endless rows
of auto garages and the unattended piles of used tires.
an array of gritty businesses beyond the waste station, the Iron Triangle
simply repels investment, according to Flushing based developer Wellington
Chen, and Tully only compounds the woe.
“Why would anyone want to invest in the area?”
will ever invest unless the City invests in us first,” he said.
“This really has little to do with the transfer station, which
operates as cleanly and efficiently as possible.”
whose grandfather started the family business in the Iron Triangle, tends
towards the long view.
“It always seems like somebody’s coming.
For 50 years, that’s what we’ve been dealing with,” he said.
“We’re almost destined to be a junk yard.”
Point, just west of the Flushing River, has been targeted by business and
political leaders for aggressive redevelopment. Today, however, a
high-volume waste transfer station (left) and an array of auto shops (right)
occupy the area. Tribune
Photos by Aaron Rutkoff
Photos by Aaron Rutkoff
just two years, Tully Environmental has doubled the daily capacity at its
waste transfer station - and has applied for State permission to expand yet
Photo by Aaron Rutkoff
Photo by Aaron Rutkoff
between Shea Stadium, the U.S.T.A. tennis complex and downtown Flushing is
the “Iron Triangle.”
only people who dispute the fact that the greatest pianos in the world are
the ones made by hand in the Steinway & Sons factory in Astoria are the
people in Hamburg, Germany, who also make pianos by hand, under the Steinway
& Sons name.
Venus and Serena Williams in tennis, the claim of world’s greatest is
being fought within a single family.
have reigned as virtually the only name in the piano world for 150 years.
For most of those years, the pianos have been built in Astoria, just
one block off the street bearing the family’s name.
24 years after the first American Steinway & Sons office opened, a
second plant in Hamburg was opened in 1880 by one of the founder’s sons.
Astoria/Hamburg debate has been raging ever since.
officials diffuse the debate by admitting acoustic differences exist not
just between Astoria and Hamburg pianos, but also between every single piano
that bears the Steinway name.
sound is very subjective,” a statement issued by the company declared.
“Some Steinway artists feel that a Hamburg Steinway produces a
bright sound, and the New York Steinway is more rich and dimensional.”
Skirting the categorization of “better than” or “best”, the
company says, “each artist and individual player has his or her own
At The Heart
the Astoria factory, woods that originated from New York to Africa are
“seasoned” for up to a year in what Steinway’s director of advertising
and public relations Leo Spellman called “the rich climate of Queens. You can’t get that in other places.”
why New York’s largest factory, that produces instruments so sensitive to
weather, remains in a service-industry city is similar to explaining how a
piano player selects his Steinway.
Spellman said, “It’s not something that’s easily definable. . . .Cabinetmakers tuning pianos, New York City and hand craftsmanship . . . contradictions that most people would shy away from are the heart of the Steinway secret.”
Players Vs. Piano
not the musical talent pool of the borough that can explain Steinway’s
ongoing success in Queens.
piano players don’t necessarily make good piano makers,” said Director
of Personnel Michael A. Anesta. He
quipped about the success rate of other piano company’s who gave up their
locations in the City for digs elsewhere.
the turn of the century there were 100 piano makers.
One hundred years later, there’s only one . . . . Companies that
moved to lower cost of living areas have encountered the difficulty of
uprooting their labor force and tried to recreate that somewhere else.
Most have failed or gone out of business,” Anesta said.
process itself makes the sound. The
key is the craftsman on the floor,” he added. “That labor force is the
difference.” The man in
charge of replenishing that labor pool admits that the Big Apple isn’t
where a company like his would normally be found.
a very labor intensive, old style of production.
The way we build [pianos], the nature of the process, hand assembly,
isn’t what people expect to find in New York in the modern era,” Anesta
said. “It takes nine months
for each piano,” Anesta added, “not unlike birthing a child; probably
just as painful.”
Science And The Art
are the sensitive, finicky, temperamental divas of the music world.
The slightest change in temperature, humidity, even sun light could
require a complete tuning session, which can take a professional hours.
“Pianos go out of tune in New York four times a year,” two
Steinway employees joked.
foreman of Steinway’s tone regulating department Mark Dillon – a
motorcycle riding guitar player – said he doesn’t play the piano and he
insists all visitors to the factory wear safety goggles.
he does watch piano concerts.
compares the reason why he watches Steinway pianos in action to why a
mechanic watches NASCAR races: not to see the big crash, but rather to find
and diagnose the slightest imperfection.
the tuning and regulating section of the factory, Dillon said, is where
“the large esoteric piece of cabinetry becomes an instrument.”
the science and the art of the piano that captivates him, Dillon said . . .
how all the hammers rise above the chords in unison, like pistons firing
for the sound, Dillon waxes on about what the perfectly tuned piano can do.
“The bass is far off thunder, but when you get to the treble [on
the opposite end of the piano], you can hear the individual raindrops,” he
first Steinway & Sons factory opened in 1854 on Varrick Street, under
the eye of the family patriarch Henry Englehard Steinweg, who had already
tuned his own name. When the
Steinway factory opened in Astoria in 1872, Henry passed on, leaving his
sons, C.F. Theodore and William to run the family business.
family business already patented an invention that earned them the Gold
Medal Award from the Paris Exposition, the first American company to be so
patent was for a revolutionary device in piano making:
the one-piece cast-iron plate. Piano
chords were strung along the cast-iron plate with industrial-like tension,
giving each chord a greater, richer sound. Also, the bass chords were run across the body of the piano,
allowing for never-before-seen chord lengths, and unrivaled bass sounds.
years after the Astoria plant opened, C. F. Theodore developed a way to use
a single 22-foot piece of wood for the grand piano’s curvaceous rim. Before that, several joints held the numerous pieces
together, losing the richness of sound Theodore’s patent method offered.
to the hand-shaped hammers that strike the chords, piano regulator Bruce
Campbell said, “It makes a nasty noise on the attack when they’re not
fitted properly. That’s why it’s important to get it perfect.”
a tank top and Oakley-shaped safety glasses, Campbell said despite producing
less than five thousand pianos a year, “we hold 90 to 95 percent of the
tickles the ivory in a soundproof room, stopping to mark which keys need
tightening, which hammers need shaving, and which, for now, are fine.
The man whose ear distinguishes the showroom-ready pianos from those
that need more attention said he has little musical training.
taught myself to play,” Campbell said, whose first job was shaping the
hammers. “It took me years to
learn what I wanted the piano to sound like.”
science of tuning the 88 keys, and adjusting the 1,200 individual pieces of
the piano, is never finished.
chords must be hit simultaneously, with surgical precision, to produce a
single note. A hand-shaved
hammer strikes down on the chords, rotating around a wire-thin hinge coated
material is very much alive…from when it leaves [the factory or showroom]
and settles into the home,” Dillon said.
“You ever see that image of a piano by the window, bathed in
sunlight?” he asked, and then warned, don’t do it!
the worst possible thing you could do,” he said, to the wood finish and
finely-tuned chords of a true, Queens-bred Steinway.
Mark Dillon - a motorcycle riding guitar player - inspects the 1,200 pieces
inside a concert piano.
the 88 key by hand in a sound proof room is Bruce Campbell, who taught
himself to play piano.
from New York to Africa is seasoned behind the Astoria Factory for up to a
shank is one of the mechanisms connecting the keys to the chord.