Melting the Iron Triangle

Amid Willets Point 'blight,' pride and vow to fight redevelopment

"The reason this area is so good is the same reason they want to take the property," Fodera says. Willets Point is close to Corona, where many blue-collar workers live. It's near the nexus of the Van Wyck, the Grand Central Parkway, and the Whitestone Bridge—offering access to Manhattan and points West, the Bronx and Connecticut, Brooklyn and Long Island. That's great for the construction firms, waste haulers, and food delivery firms.

Fodera Foods is the classic immigrant business story. The grandfather came from Italy, started a grocery store, then began supplying bakeries with semolina to make pasta. He handed the business down to his sons, and now it's run by Fodera and his siblings.

"I've been in this business all my life," he says. Kids used to notice that he smelled of doughnuts or jelly because the family car was stocked with goods during his ride to school. In all, some 200 people derive their incomes from the Fodera site. The company's non-union workers (most are Hispanic) receive health care benefits and 401(k)s in return for some hard work: The 12 trucks are loaded at 4:30 a.m. for deliveries throughout the region to bakeries, manufacturers, and restaurants. Once those trucks are gone, the shipments of new supplies come in. Then the next day's orders are set aside, before the empty trucks return at 9 p.m. Standing in his 134,000-square-foot warehouse with around $1 million in product on hand, pointing at the looming stacks of food, Fodera says, "You've eaten flour from here."

Driven to distraction: Willets Point businesses have been targets of failed redevelopment plans for decades
photo: Sam Logan
Driven to distraction: Willets Point businesses have been targets of failed redevelopment plans for decades

And if you've eaten Indian food in the United States, chances are some of it came from down the street at House of Spices. At midmorning, the place is bustling as workmen sprint to load trucks with parantha bread, basmati rice, chikka flour, and cooking oil for deliveries to restaurants in Manhattan or Indian stores in New Jersey.

George Asar, the manager, oversees shipments coming in from the subcontinent, the U.K., and Australia, and trucks going out to local retailers or his firm's other warehouses in Houston, L.A., and other cities. Now a six-day-a-week operation that employs 100 people, it all started as a grocery store run by Asar's cousins before he arrived in 1973. "I came here for this," he says, walking through the rows of items—3,500 in all—including rice, tea, coffee, mango juice, curry powder, pickles. "I came here for the company." His nephews work there, too, helping to manage the shipping on the ground floor and the manufacturing operation upstairs. Twenty-foot machines grind rice into flour, and a supersized fryer churns out spicy-hot snack mix. Ice cream and sweets are created and packaged. Pieces of ginger, in massive bins, are beat down into paste, and chutney gets bottled. It all eventually goes out under the Laxmi label, whose logo is the four-armed goddess of wealth.

Asar's operation is a far cry from the junkyard that Willets Point can appear to be to drivers on Northern Boulevard. The area's problems are undeniable, however; both Fodera and House of Spices say the potholes and sewage problems are indeed a nuisance. But locals are irked that rather than fixing them with the estimated $1.1 million in tax revenue the area generates each year, the city is using the bad roads and wet conditions as a pretext for throwing the businesses out.

"We have no infrastructure," says Ardezzone. "They refuse to give us any. We keep requesting it but we don't get it." A spokeswoman for the DEP didn't believe that the area wasn't connected to the sewer system. The DOT says it repaved the roads in the late 1990s, and will fill potholes as they come. There are hundreds of potholes.

"I think condemnation is a harsh remedy to a problem that was not created by us. I think that's a real injustice," Fodera says. "I will not give up my property to enrich a private developer. It's just not going to happen."

The current redevelopment plan isn't the first Willets Point has faced. In the '60s, planning czar Robert Moses eyed the site for a stadium, but the community resisted. Two decades later, Donald Trump wanted the site for a stadium for his New Jersey Generals of the USFL, and Queens boss Donald Manes sat in the Fodera warehouse conference room, telling the family to pack its bags. But it was the USFL that folded. Last year, after the West Side stadium proposal died in Albany, the area was included in a Plan B for an Olympic facility in Queens. But the games went to London instead.

This time the Willets Point site itself may be the area's best defense against outside, private redevelopment. Preliminary environmental surveys of the area have found a litany of problems. There are storage tanks underground, the soil is too soft to hold heavy loads, it's on a flood plain, and building heights are constrained because of its proximity to LaGuardia Airport.

But the EDC says these conditions don't preclude a large-scale project at the site. Developers contacted by the Voice wouldn't comment on whether they intend to submit a bid, or what their plans hold for existing businesses. Their proposals won't be made public until a winner is selected.

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