Heck No, We Won't Go! Business Owners Protest Bloomberg Redevelopment Plan

Controversial Queens development headed for vote

A Bloomberg administration proposal to redevelop an industrial area by the New York Mets' stadium into a convention center district with apartments and parks appeared headed for approval after months of lobbying and multimillion-dollar deals for polluted parcels of land.

But a majority of owners of more than 200 auto shops and salvage yards that would be razed for the Queens project said they wouldn't sell, setting up an eminent domain battle over one of the city's most ambitious developments.

The City Council was to vote Thursday on a proposal to rezone the 62-acre Willets Point neighborhood so a hotel, convention center, shops and 5,500 apartments could be built near the Mets' new CitiField stadium. The project would take at least a decade, and the polluted streets, which don't have sewers, would have to be remediated first.

"Pollution -- if it was nothing else -- this would be a good reason to do Willets Point," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Wednesday.

But he also called the neighborhood one "with the most promise."

The administration has fought strong resistance from business owners who have stayed put for decades, resisting attempts by New York City builder Robert Moses to rebuild.

"It's 1,000 percent not right. You ask a little 5-year-old kid and he'll tell you it's not right," said Jake Bono, a sawdust supply company owner who doesn't want sell. "This is just a giant land grab."

Council members were also wary of approving a plan that would let the city use the power of eminent domain to take over private land. More than half the 51-member council signed a letter months ago saying they wouldn't support the Willets Point project without major changes.

But on Wednesday, a vocal opponent, Councilman Hiram Monserrate, said he would vote for the plan after receiving pledges that one-third of the apartments would be affordable and that the city would try to buy land before taking it over. The city also pushed job retraining programs and offered to relocate some businesses elsewhere in Queens.

"I think that is a win-win, and we also send a message that government can be fair, as it is most of the time, can be fair and still do good economic development," said Monserrate, who will leave the council next year for the state Senate.

Jerry Antonacci, who refused a city offer to buy his waste transfer station because he said the price was too low, said if the plan succeeds it won't be because the government was fair.

"The mayor always gets what he wants," Antonacci said. "These council people fold."

Most council leaders said they expected the plan to pass, but some remained concerned that the city try to secure deals for more than half the privately owned land first. By Wednesday, the city had deals to buy about a third of the land from 13 owners and was negotiating with a contractor -- the neighborhood's largest land owner -- for enough acreage to take over more than half the land.

The city didn't disclose how much it paid for each parcel, although nearly $200 million was budgeted. Several owners said they were paid well above market prices for the contaminated land.

The mayor said the project would create 5,000 jobs and more than $1 billion in revenue. But several doubters questioned the aggressive deals for a long-term project in an economic downturn.

"The city has no money," Bono said, "but Bloomberg ... still has money to play Monopoly with his friends at Willets Point."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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