Willets Workers Protest Push-Off

BY TRISHA SAKHUJA
Staff Writer

As the holidays approach, Willets Point businesses have gotten coal in their stockings, but they do not plan to take the offense lightly.

Since the Queens Borough Board voted on Nov. 18 to allow the City’s Economic Development Council to sell the 23 acres of land for $1 to the Queens Development Group, many of the Iron Triangle tenants being displaced from their established auto-shops at Willets Point gathered on the steps of City Hall on Nov. 20 to rally with State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) to protest against the proposed relocation plan.

State Sen. Tony Avella protests with Willets Point tenants as they push back against the relocation process.

State Sen. Tony Avella protests with Willets Point tenants as they push back against the relocation process.

Carrying signs that said “Earth to Julissa: We’re NOT Being Relocated,” tenant business owners, whose landlord is the Dept. of Housing and Preservation,  denounced their evictions without relocation, and called on the involved agencies and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio to hit the pause button.

Avella said the current relocation plan falls far short of what the tenants need and deserve for relocation.

“Many of these businesses have yet to find a place to relocate to, even with the City’s purported help,” he said. “This is obviously unfair and these tenants warrant the extension they are looking for.”

In addition, Avella said, “these tenants deserve more payment than the City is offering, especially since the tenants have accused the City of purposefully lowering their rents, which has the added effect of lowering their payment.”

Avella also revealed his request that the United States Department of Justice investigate the role of Cornerstone Group, which has been paid $700,000 by the City to provide relocation assistance, in the Willets Point relocation debacle.

The $3 million development project at Willets Point, put forth by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Queens Development Group, a joint venture between Sterling Equities and Related Companies Inc., was approved by the City Council in October. The project is set to build a 1.4 million-square-foot mall on parkland, across the street from Citi Field.

According to the proposed relocation plan, businesses that agreed to vacate Willets Point by Nov. 30 received payment equivalents to 12 months’ present rent. For any business that stays beyond that date, they will have to relocate no later than Jan. 31 in order to receive six months of their present rent.

According to City officials, more than a quarter million dollars has already been distributed, with hundreds of thousands more queued up when they can confirm that additional businesses have vacated after the Nov. 30 milestone.

“More than 30 businesses have relocated, signed a lease, or are close to doing so,” a City official said.

However, the tenants are requesting an extension of at least six months to better prepare themselves for relocation.

“The situation is terrible,” Arturo Olaya, president of the Willets Point Defense Committee, said. “They are closing the businesses everyday.”

When it comes relocating the businesses, Olaya said Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) “is lying in front of everybody saying that the people are getting relocated but over here, nobody is getting relocated.”

“We need some support and help from the community,” he added.

Ferreras said for the last five years, she has been working hand-in-hand with Willets Point workers and the City to negotiate a better relocation compensation package, which now totals more than $15.5 million.

“I fought hard to bring those monies and workers need to take advantage of those funding,” she said. “I encourage everyone to find out what they are eligible for. No one compensation package is the same. The monies are available for those with a HPD lease. My office have been nonstop in meeting with tenants and have been advocating on their behalf and I will continue to do so.”

Sergio Aguirre, organizer of the Sunrise Co-op, which is a group of more than 50 businesses at Willets Point looking to relocate together, said they are in the process of finalizing a deal with a landlord at Hunts Point in the Bronx. If that happens, a group of 18 or so auto-shops will move.

“We think our members will be together in a new place,” Aguirre said.

  Reach Trisha Sakhuja at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, tsakhuja@queenstribune.com, or @Tsakhuja13.