In advance of the City Council’s hearing on the rezoning and redevelopment of Willets Point, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, who would be tasked with the demolition, remediation, and reconstruction of the entire site, held a press briefing to address many of the concerns that current tenants of the industrial business district, and several politicians, have regarding the project.
Willets Point, which is a long-neglected neighborhood north of Flushing Meadows Park, has been home to hundreds of automotive, construction, and waste management companies for decades, but the neighborhood’s infrastructure has been severely lacking.
Unpaved roads, limited drainage, and a lack of environmental enforcement have resulted in the land not only becoming contaminated, but an ecological danger due to its constant flooding and low elevation. Once remediated, the EDC is planning a large-scale residential and retail development for the site, the specifics of which have yet to be determined.
“Willets Point is a highly compromised environment, and if it was located anywhere else in the city, there would not even be a debate about cleaning it up,” said EDC President Seth Pinsky.
Despite the acknowledged toxic conditions in the neighborhood, the development plan has proven to be immensely controversial. The business and landowners have said that they are being forced out through an abuse of eminent domain, and that not enough is being done to relocate the businesses.
The EDC has said that they are working closely with businesses, and in the face of the upcoming Council hearings, are persuading more and more businesses to relocate and more property owners to sell. At the briefing, Pinsky was forced to leave early due to scheduled meetings with business owners at City Hall.
Although they are making efforts to work with the business owners, EDC contends that they have played a major part in the contamination of the neighborhood. The automotive and industrial businesses frequently dispose of petroleum products and construction materials in unsafe ways. Another contributing factor is long-forgotten and poorly maintained septic tanks.
According to EDC, it would be impossible to remediate the neighborhood and allow the businesses to stay, due to the levels of contamination. According to Kevin McCarty of consulting firm HDR, if just one property was remediated, it would quickly become contaminated by its neighboring properties.
He also said that the septic tanks would be difficult, if not impossible to locate while the buildings still stand. Attempts to measure and study contamination on individual properties has been met with indifference by property owners, leaving EDC with patchy records and statistics.
“It really lends itself to a wholesale holistic handling of the area, in one fell swoop,” said McCarty.
More than half of the neighborhood also exists below the 100-year flood plain, meaning that the chances for severe flooding in the area increase dramatically with each year. The neighborhood will need to be raised by at least six feet, a process that Willets Point’s neighbor, the new Citifield, has already made a point to do. The former marshland and dumpsite has been slowly sinking, and the EDC plans to bring in millions of tons of slate fill to solidify and raise the ground nearest to Flushing Creek.
Another major concern lobbed at EDC by those who oppose the plan is that the “plan” is particularly vague. Councilman Hiram Monserrate has been vocally opposed to the plan, collecting a majority of council members’ signatures who will not approve the plan unless significant changes are made. Their demands include an agreeable relocation of business owners without the use of eminent domain and a specific outline for the development of the area that includes significant affordable housing.
According to EDC, it is far too early to identify a developer or any specific development plans for the neighborhood. Because the area of contamination and its levels remain unknown, EDC declined to offer a cost or time frame for the project.
“We haven’t been on any of the sites, and so we don’t have any numbers,” said McCarty. “A projection would have to be based on an investigation.”
While few would dispute that Willets Point is in serious need of an ecological makeover, it is the issues of displacement and economic equality that have truly driven the debate over the future of Willets Point. When asked how the EDC responded to these concerns, Davd Lombino, director of Public Affairs, said, “We have next week’s Council hearings to discuss that.”