By Jon Campbell
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By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
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There were no conventioneers on hand last Wednesday when Willets Point woke up drenched from early morning rain. There were no tourists watching as the metal gates went up on the corrugated-tin auto body shops, muffler repair outfits, and scrap dealers in this part of Queens.
Workers took up their posts on the street to spot customers driving by, asking them, "Hey, Papi, what you need?" Massive earth movers growled to life in the bay used by Tully's Construction, and diesel-fired dump trucks plowed through street-width puddles toward Evergreen Recycling. At Feinstein Iron Works, a guy positioned a machine to bore into the end of a steel beam, while over at Bono's, a man in a cloth mask stacked bags of sawdust as they came off a conveyer belt. A driver for United Steel Products tossed his lunch bag into the flatbed he'd steer to a work site.
In the development dreams of the Bloomberg administration, the 75 acres of Willets Point will soon be transformed into "a vibrant and attractive new urban community." There'll be "an exciting and synergistic mix of land uses," like a hotel with at least 250 rooms, a convention center, pedestrian gateways, and open spaceall of which will complement the new Shea Stadium to rise in the parking lot across 126th Street. Developers selected by the Economic Development Corporation are to submit their proposals this week for "creating a regional destination, promoting economic growth and additional private investment, and improving the quality of life for area residents," maybe with housing, office space, cultural facilities, and, of course, stores. "Shopping," the EDC notes, "has become a form of entertainment in America."
Only one thing is missing from the outlines of the $2 billion project that the EDC envisions: any place for the 250 or so businesses and around 1,500 workers who now toil in what's known as the "Iron Triangle."
Maybe that's because the city sees Willets Point as no place to run a business. "The current streets are poorly maintained and inadequate to support additional development," the EDC says. "Most of the properties in the district are unable to connect to the city's storm and sanitary sewer system." That means the human waste goes into cesspools, while the chemicals that run from the auto shops into the streets go wherever the water takes it, creating "an ongoing public health risk." There are also incidents of illegal dumping, building code violations, and reports of stolen-parts trading with "possible links to organized crime." In other words, the Iron Triangle is rusted with "blight." So in order to bring in more and better paying jobs, the city's timetable calls for current businesses to start relocating in 2008. And as in other development projects around the city, property owners at Willets Point could leave voluntarilyor be forced out by eminent domain.
At least a few are planning not to go quietly. "This is our home and we're not leaving. We are going to fight for our rights," says Anthony Fodera, sitting in the warehouse his family has operated since 1973. Despite the water, the potholes, the chemicals in the area? Despite the crime? "I'm not afraid of getting mugged," Fodera says. "I'm afraid of the city and the EDC. They hold you up without a gun."
There were few postcard-worthy images amid the rising water last Wednesday. A couple of mangy dogs roamed the streets, which are an unforgiving network of potholes, broken occasionally by the cadavers of cars. Oil flowed in rainbows through the widening, sometimes ankle-deep puddles. But spend any time in Willets Point, and you see something else.
"To me it's very nice," says Joe Ardezzone, who's spent more time there than many: 73 years. The head of the Willets Point Business Association, he is apparently the Iron Triangle's only resident, and he recalls a day when their were pheasants roaming the area before the auto businesses moved in during the '40s. The smell of sewage makes your eyes tear up in the summer, and the roar of jets taking off from LaGuardia is ear-splitting. But Ardezzone insists the area is functioning. "It's a low-class business but they're doing a great service and at a reasonable price," he says, pointing to the auto-repair shops. "This is thriving."
About 75 percent of area businesses are auto-related, covering every part of a car's body and lifespan. You can get keys made, glass installed, and chassis aligned. Used cars are sold, broken cars are serviced, and old cars are torn apart for scraptheir remnants re-sold to other businesses on the strip. Even the small places might see 10 cars a day, the mechanics working inside the shops on lifts or out on the street. The brokers who direct customers to the shops get a couple of bucks for their troubles. Jose Lemos at Chepy's Auto Service, who sells parts from scrapped cars, says he makes $450 in a good week to support his wife and two kids. Other guys say a mechanic might take home around $600.
A recent Hunter College study found that Willets Point was already a "unique regional destination"not for tourists, but for auto parts and repairs. That concentration of businesses is what makes it work; it's like a stock market for mufflers and tires and glass, in which customers can shop around. The firms depend on one another to help draw customers and trade parts. The location, meanwhile, is valuable to a lot of businesses.
"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 Bridgeoffering 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."
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 items3,500 in allincluding 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.