Willets Point development approved

November 13, 2008 5:38:06 PM PST
A plan to redevelop a polluted industrial neighborhood of auto shops and salvage yards near the New York Mets' stadium was overwhelmingly passed by the City Council on Thursday over the objections of business owners who said the city was strong-arming them out of their land. The council agreed to rezone the Queens industrial area so that a hotel and convention center, thousands of apartments, shops and parks could be built around the Mets' Citi Field stadium. The vote was 42-2 with one abstention.

Council members said they supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan because it pledged to make one-third of the apartments affordable and would rehabilitate Willets Point, a dismal neighborhood with pothole-filled streets and no sewers.

But others feared that the city could use eminent domain to take over the 62-acre site from businesses that had thrived there for decades and don't want to move.

The city has made land deals with owners of about half the neighborhood in recent days. But Councilman Tony Avella, who voted against the plan, said the city left owners with little choice.

"The conversation was, `We're going to take this land, and you should accept our offer or else,"' he said.

Bloomberg said the city would negotiate with all the business owners, but he defended eminent domain as a way to protect the government from unreasonable tactics.

"No matter how fair you are, and we can't just open the spigot and say `anything you want'," he said Thursday before the City Council vote. "There'll always be, however, one person at the end who thinks that they're in a situation to get a disproportionate amount, price for their property. And having eminent domain to stop that is the real advantage."

He added: "We're not walking away from anybody here. But it is in the city's interest to take property."

The city and the largest business in the neighborhood, contractor Tully Construction, reached an agreement Thursday afternoon. But the contractor and two other large businesses will be allowed to stay in the neighborhood for an undetermined amount of time in the project's early phases, the city said.

The city hasn't hired developers and must first work to clean up the contaminated land in the project, which is expected to take a decade.

A redeveloped Willets Point would feature a hotel and convention center, 8 acres of parks, office space, a new school and 5,500 apartments. More than one-third of the apartments would be affordable, many aimed at residents earning less than $40,000 a year, leaders said.

The City Council passed a separate affordable-housing project in Queens for 5,000 apartments along the East River.

About 20 business owners attended the hearing and left saying they were betrayed by their councilman, Hiram Monserrate, who signed off on the project this week after months of leading opposition.

Jake Bono, who owns a sawdust supply company, said that the vote changed nothing and that he will fight for his land in court.

"If somebody came to take Bloomberg's land, he would never give up," Bono said.


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