Willets Point Businesses Sue to Protect their Livelihoods

Twenty-two property owners threatened by eminent domain for the Willets Point redevelopment project in Queens, New York have filed a petition with the Supreme Court of the State of New York challenging the city’s environmental review of the neighborhood and asking the court to declare that the city’s development plan violates both state and federal law. Visiting the neighborhood today, one would be surprised that places like this still exist in the United States. It makes you think of the days when the “Valley of Ashes,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald called the Corona Dump, was right next door. Many still drive through there as Gatsby did, but today they drive to tennis matches at Flushing Meadows and baseball games at newly built Citi Field.  

Despite the nearby attractions, vital public services for which municipalities are responsible simply do not exist in Willets Point. There are few sewers, and many of the sewers that are there are in need of repair; the streets are crumbling; there are no fire hydrants, no trash removal and no city plows come when it snows.

Despite that the lack of government services, there are 225 businesses in the neighborhood, nearly all of which are threatened by eminent domain. Many of these businesses came together to form Willets Point United Against Eminent Domain Abuse.  These include Bono Sawdust Supply Company has survived and thrived for 63 years and United Steel Products, which has made rolling steel doors in Willets Point for 30 years. All told, the Willets Point businesses employ more than 1,000 local workers, most of whom speak only Spanish. Instead of providing the infrastructure everyone else in New York City enjoys, the city would rather pulverize the entire neighborhood, destroying the businesses in the process, and start over, replacing the businesses with 61 acres of something else.

No one knows yet what that might be because even the environmental study says “there is currently no specific development plan….” What is in place, is the cloud of eminent domain. According to the property owners, the future possibility of eminent domain has all but frozen their businesses:  they can neither sell their properties nor find any but the most desperate of tenants to lease to; banks will not give them loans to improve their properties; and they can’t make any future plans for expansion because their very livelihoods are in doubt.

New York City’s development plan puts the threat of eminent domain in writing but doesn’t give details on what officials want to be built where the Willets Point businesses stand now.  According to the property owners, this violates the Supreme Court’s decision in the Kelo case, because the majority opinion, although it allows takings for economic development, requires that cities that use eminent domain for that reason have a “carefully formulated” plan.

Michael Gerrard, attorney for WP United, stated the following in the petition summed up the threaten property owners’ argument: “Here, the Deputy Mayor’s Office has only its starry-eyed vision.  The Deputy Mayor’s Office sets forth this vision in the first page of the FGEIS [Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement] executive summary:  ‘The proposed Plan’s main goal is to transform a largely underutilized site with substandard conditions and substantial environmental degradation into a lively, mixed-use, sustainable community and regional destination.’  This might be a lofty aspiration, but aspirations alone cannot provide grounds for condemning — and ruining — the 61 acres of vital businesses in Willets Point.”

In addition to protesting the threat of eminent domain, the business owners believe that the Deputy Mayor’s office, besides not having the legal ability to be the lead agency on the project, neglected to take into account the actual environmental impact of the city’s grand vision, which includes clogging already congested streets and highways that right now fail emergency response services standards and potentially polluting an underground aquifer.