Willets Opponents Fight Eminent Domain
By ROSS BARKAN
Joe Ardizonne, clad in Revolutionary War-era garb, stands with State Sen. Tony Avella, WPU lawyer Michael Rikon and Councilman Dan Halloran to support anti-eminent domain legislation.
Tribune Photo By Ross Barkan
Revolutionary War-era soldiers could not have fathomed a tube pumping gasoline into an automobile or a monstrous highway bearing those very same automobiles across a metropolis. The concept of a neighborhood devoted exclusively to repairing automobiles would have been equally alien.
Yet there was Joseph Ardizzone, the only legal resident of Willets Point, walking about a Sunoco gas station clad in a tricorn hat and knickers, a wizened reminder that many had failed to transform Willets Point before Mayor Michael Bloomberg, including the master builder himself, Robert Moses.
Ardizzone was one of dozens of protesters, including political rivals Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) and State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), to pack a Northern Boulevard gas station to continue their fight against development at Willets Point, more particularly the use of eminent domain to seize private properties.
Organized by Michael Rikon, an attorney for Willets Point development opposition group Willets Point United, the rally had a desperate tenor because time may be running out for the property owners and workers of Willets Point: the Federal Highway Administration recently approved the City Economic Development Corporation’s proposal for new ramps on the nearby Van Wyck Expressway, implying that the traffic burden of an eventual Willets Point development would not be great enough to override the project itself. The State Dept. of Transportation must rule on the ramp plan as well.
“It’s always been my understanding that eminent domain should only be used in those isolated cases when we are talking about a public highway, a hospital, a school, something that has a real public purpose,” Avella said. “With this, we’re going to take somebody’s private business to give it to a big developer, who’s another private business, who’s going to make millions of dollars. To me, that’s the opposite of the American dream.”
Eminent domain refers to the ability of a governmental body to seize private property for public use. Critics of eminent domain use believe it has been abused to enrich a few private developers at the expense of many private property owners.
Rikon called attention to the “Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2012,” a bill that would prohibit eminent domain use by any state or political subdivision for economic development if that state or political subdivision receives federal funds. The bill would also prevent the federal government from using eminent domain for economic development.
The bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives, waits in the U.S. Senate. Supporters have conceded that it will likely fail to pass the Senate. However, if it did, the Willets Point development plan, approved by the City Council in 2008 and broken up into multiple phases, could be jeopardized.
“I am upset at people who believe a Gucci store and luxury apartment buildings serve a greater public interest than repair and body fender shops,” said Benjamin Haber, president of the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association.
Most Queens elected officials have endorsed the City’s plan to eventually clear Willets Point of its auto body shops and build hotels, stores and housing in its place. A convention center idea has been floated as well, though its feasibility is questioned. Workers at Willets Point, predominately Hispanic, have accused the NYPD of regularly harassing them in a concerted attempt to force them out of the Iron Triangle. The NYPD has denied these allegations.
The City Law Department contends that proponents of the Private Property Rights Protection Act are not looking at the larger effects of the bill.
“If this bill were to become law, important revitalization projects, such as the ones that gave new life to Times Square, Metrotech and Lincoln Center, wouldn’t be possible and it would also jeopardize the long-sought redevelopment of Willets Point,” stated Lisa Boya-Hiat, Deputy Chief, NYC Law Department.
Reach Reporter Ross Barkan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 357-7400, Ext. 127.