Car shops brace for Willets Point redevelopment

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— This area next to CitiField stadium often referred to as the “Iron Triangle,” bustles with activity. The buzzing of welders, clatter of tools and humming of engines fills the air. Cars drive slowly through these battered streets, wading through flooded potholes. Mechanics in stained work clothes chatter over the din while their hands are busy fixing customers’ vehicles. Here and there, Latin music can be heard streaming from radios.

The busy scene seems at odds with an underlying fact: several car repair shops in the area have closed in the last few months because of a city development plan. To make way for the project, the city proposed a year’s rent to shop owners in Willets Point who agreed to move out by Nov. 30 2013. Indeed, some shops bear written signs indicating that the shop owners have moved elsewhere. A few have been offered relocation in the Bronx. Despite the city’s offer, many mechanics have stayed put and business seems to be going on as usual for many of the area’s garages and scrap-shops.

“We need a better deal, something more specific, realistic,” says Arturo Olaya, president of the Defense Committee of Willets Point, Small Businesses and Workers.  “Our businesses relate one to another. The city has to take a better action to relocate.”

Willets Point has long been known for its auto repair shops and scrap yards. Olaya says more than 240 of them do business in the area. On a recent March morning, the packed ice that had accumulated in the dirty streets during the winter had started to melt under the sun, creating large puddles. The rusty carcasses of cars and junk-yards make this Queens neighborhood look somewhat like a motor vehicle cemetery.

The city wants to redevelop and transform the area into one 62-acre site, featuring mixed-income housing, retail space and a hotel, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s website. The transformation of Willets Point, the site reports, will produce more than 7,000 permanent jobs and 12,000 temporary construction jobs and provide 30-year economic benefit to the city estimated at $1.3 billion.

“This project will clean up a site that has been contaminated for generations and create thousands of jobs while providing the surrounding communities with amenities that will contribute to the area’s bright future,” wrote in an email a spokesperson for the Queens Development Group in charge of carrying out the project. “State legislation signed into law over 50 years ago makes it very clear that this project can move forward.”

The fate of Willets Point’s mechanics may rest on a legal battle regarding the future development. On Feb. 10, New York State Senator Tony Avella (D-Queens, and local advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the city in the County of New York Supreme Court. The lawsuit seeks to stop the project, contending that the construction of a shopping mall in CitiField’s parking lot is illegal because the land is in fact parkland, its original designation.

“I’m helping those businesses and those tenants fight the city because they’re being treated rather shabbily,” says Sen. Avella.

For example,  through a Freedom of Information Law request, he found that many of the relocation spots for businesses suggested by the city for were not even in New York City.

“They provided locations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Westchester, Long Island, and some places that were not even for rent,” he said. “It’s been a real disgrace.”

Olaya, from the area’s defense committee, claims that many shops have been closed since November’s deadline with the tools inside, because the owners didn’t have the money to move them. He’s stayed open this long, he says, because he is not a tenant of the city.

As the current case makes its way through the judicial system, many mechanics, meanwhile, keep working

“You can see all the people coming here and getting their cars fixed,” says Joseph Ardizzone, 81, who has lived in the neighborhood his entire life. “And we are supplying a need.”

Ardizzone, one of the petitioners of the lawsuit, says he is the only resident in the neighborhood and does not wish to sell his property.

“We’re in the right,” he says. “No one has the right, whether it’s economic development or any other government aspect to turn around and toss us around like they want to.”

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