n 2004 Mayor Michael Bloomberg embarked upon a long cherished goal of his administration and that of several of the city’s planners and chief executives before him—transforming a 62-acre conglomeration of auto repair shops and junkyards called Willets Point into a new neighborhood of hotels, office buildings, housing and shops.
By March 2012, the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) gave the $3 billion project a major boost, with a finding that it would have “no significant effect on the human environment”. The FHA also found that a pair of proposed highway ramps would enhance traffic circulation between the Willets Point development and the Van Wyck Expressway.
The mayor's plan was approved by the City Council in November 2008. Its intent was to create 5,500 housing units, 35 percent of which were to be dedicated to low-, moderate- and middle income families, eight acres of open space, parks and playgrounds; 500,000 square feet of office space, and 1.7 million square feet of retail space. A new school, a hotel, a convention center, and luxury residential towers were also part of the plan. In addition to creating 5,300 permanent jobs and 18,000 construction jobs, the plan was expected to generate $1.3 billion in direct tax revenue and at least $25 billion in economic activity over 30 years.
The plan included a comprehensive Willets Point Workforce Assistance Plrogram, to be administered by LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. The job assistance plan was to be available to all of the 1,700 people working at Willets Point who would be dislocated from their jobs. In March 2011, 12 graduates of the 16- week Willets Point Worker Assistance Program were hailed by Queen Borough President Helen Marshall at graduation ceremonies at the Center for Automotive Education & Training in Whitestone.
The city planned to spend $900 million to acquire the land. It negotiated property acquisition agreements with many landowners, accounting for a good percentage of the acreage involved, and found itself having to resort to eminent domain in far fewer cases than previously expected. The one-time expansive use of eminent domain to acquire properties ran into strong resistance from the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association (WPIRA) which in August 2008 collectively owned more than 50 percent of the privately held land in Willets Point. Two prominent members of WPIRA, House of Spices and Previte Brothers, an auto salvage company, once vociferous opponents of the plan, sold their properties to the city and by November 2008, the city controlled nearly 40 percent of the 62- acre site.
On Apr. 1, 2011, a fire erupted on the second floor of a two-story building in Willets Point that housed several businesses including Sotos Stone N.Y., a marble and granite maker that as of the date of the fire disputed the city’s attempted use of eminent domain. The project continued to proceed, and on Dec. 1, 2011, in a groundbreaking ceremony Bloomberg marked the initial phase of $50 million worth of critical infrastructure work at Willets Point including construction of a sanitary sewer main and reconstruction of a storm sewer and outfall.—Linda J. Wilson