The Waiting Game: Willets Point Plans Remain In Flux As Biz Owners Anticipate The News
Daniel Sanbucci (seated l.) weighs in at a meeting to discuss Willets Point’s future.
By BRAD GROZNIK
A lot of things have gotten faster in the new millennium.
E-mails ping back and forth instantaneously. News updates are sent directly to Blackberries. People are aware of time but demand life take less of it.
In the media, newspapers, television networks and Web sites cover more and more breaking news and the craving for long- term effects and causes drifts out of minds whenever a new story breaks.
Willets Point has been thoroughly covered; it has been talked about for years and still it looks the same.
Sitting down with Willets Point business owner Daniel Sanbucci Sr., of Sanbucci Bros. Salvage Yards, it is obvious he is a little jaded.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “It’s not like you’re going to print what I say anyway.”
Awaiting A Change
Dozens and dozens of articles have been written about the Northeastern Queens peninsula, especially since the City unveiled its plan to relocate all the businesses from the area and start fresh with 5,500 residential units, 1.7 million square feet of retail and entertainment space, nearly 1 million square feet of office and convention center space, a 650-pupil school, a hotel, a park and eight acres of green space.
Sanbucci is still first to note, Willets Point still looks the same, no matter what has been written or said over the past months or years.
Sanbucci has heard all the rumors and read all the facts, all of which he said change with every new word typed.
City officials and a slew of reporters have spoken with Sanbucci, one of the most vocal Willets Point business owners, over the past couple of years and he has told them all the same thing.
“I don’t want to leave; I’ve been here for 55 years, it’s my home,” he said. “Who wants to leave their home?”
Sanbucci said it is too easy for the public to see Willets Point as a blight on the community.
“It’s junk around here, we know that,” he said. “But the City has been neglecting us for 55 years.”
Willets Point is notorious for being the largest parcel in the City without hook up to the sewer system.
“What kind of business do you know that has an outhouse,” Sanbucci said pointing to the emerald green port-o-john in the corner of the parking lot.
City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) called the redevelopment “a long time coming.” But Liu, along with the rest of the city, sees the dilapidated area as something that has to go in order for development of Western Queens to progress.
In 2002, the Bloomberg administration identified Flushing as an area with tremendous possibilities for growth. Since then, reports were written and word started circulating that Willets Point would receive more than a makeover.
“I think there are parts of Downtown Flushing that hold a great deal of potential housing, schools and commercial choices,” he said. “But Willets Point needs redevelopment.”
In 2004, the City created the Willets Point Advisory Committee chaired by Queens Borough President Helen Marshall to advise planning for the redevelopment of Willets Point. A Master Plan was written, gears started turning and now they are seeking out help from big-names in the borough.
Claire Shulman, Queens borough president from 1986 to 2001, is president and CEO of the Flushing Willet Point Corona Local Development Corporation, which is comprised of private and public sector individuals hoping to turn the Master Plan into a success.
“I’d like to see that 60 acres developed and be a benefit to Queens and New York City,” Shulman said. “We’re working very hard and we’re hoping to be successful.”
Taking Care Of Business
One element of the Master Plan is the creation of a workforce assistance program, which will provide education and job training services for the dislocated worker population in the Willets Point area.
It’s no wonder that Willets Point has earned the nickname “The Iron Triangle.”
The Workforce Program hopes to help the 250 businesses and 1,300 workers that will be relocated by providing such services as job training, placement and retention services. Currently, the City’s Economic Development Corporation and Small Business Services are looking for a qualified entity to take over this project.
Sanbucci said he has yet to see any movement of this plan off the page.
“They say they’re going to do all this but where are they,” he said. “It’s like they’re holding a gun to our heads and saying ‘well, we’ll let you live for one more day’ – it’s depressing.”
Evan Stavisky, spokesman for the Flushing Willets Point Corona LDC, said the group is doing a service by ridding the area of mostly seedy businesses.
Willets Point is no doubt, home to a large amount of chop shops and underhanded businesses, Sanbucci said, but a majority is legitimate businesses. Willets Point is probably the cheapest place a New Yorker can get their car fixed.
“It’s like you have a brother who’s a criminal and everyone thinks your whole family is a bunch of criminals,” he said.
If the City is successful in ousting the businesses, the City hopes to turn Willets Point into a bustling hub of commercial business.
Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-Corona) said it is important that Willets Point be beneficial to the community that feeds it.
“The development needs to meet community interests,” he said
In Corona, that means more jobs, affordable housing and a serious upgrade to the area’s infrastructure.
But the city still has a high hill to climb according to Paul Graziano, an independent urban planning consultant.
The first problem of compensating and ousting the business at Willets Point would have been a lot easier had Mayor Rudy Giuliani not sold the business owners their land in the early 1990s.
“Those business owners had long-term leases from the City,” Graziano said. “It would have taken the City five minutes to kick out the business owners if he didn’t sell them their property.”
The City is now embroiled in a tricky legal battle of eminent domain where it has the power to condemn and seize property.
Graziano said the City will have to buy off a majority of the businesses before it can make a strong suit.
“The problem is most of the businesses don’t want to leave,” he said.
What Will Come?
The next problem, Graziano said, is reality.
“Every plan I’ve seen has this phantasmagorical office park,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”
The land at Willets Point is extremely contaminated and building residential units on the land, even if the City does its best to clean it up, is unreasonable, Graziano said.
Tom McKenzie, president of Newtown Civic Association, questioned the viability of the plan’s biggest selling points.
“I think a civic center is a good idea,” he said. “But who will it attract and how will it make money is another question.”
McKenzie also does not see affordable housing making it into the final outcome of the Willets Point project.
“It’s not a good place for public transportation so I doubt they’ll put apartment buildings in there,” he said. “Maybe condos, but they’ll be pricey.”
Transportation is another big issue. Shulman said she would like vast improvements to be made to the Long Island Rail Road and the 7 train, which would still be a hike for potential Willets Point residents.
Currently, the only entrance to either system north of Roosevelt Avenue is a single hub that will be west of Citifield, and at least a 10-minute walk from one end of the development to the subway.
City officials agree the problems ahead are better than leaving Willets Point alone to fester.
Stavisky said the LDC encourages the public to express their opinions to local politicians about the Willets Point redevelopment and to look forward for many opportunities for public participation in the near future, though no dates have yet been set for public meetings.
The Economic Development Corporation is currently crafting a plan expected to be unveiled to the public and City Council before it undergoes the full approval process.
“I just wish they would hurry up,” Sanbucci said.