It looked as though the Bloomberg administration's proposal to transform Willets Point was bound for the City Council's axe, but a deal announced yesterday all but assured its passage.
Since the project's inception, local council member Hiram Monserrate had campaigned vociferously against the proposal in part for its lack of affordable housing and threatened use of eminent domain against the area's 260-odd businesses. But at a November 12 news conference, he and a handful of his colleagues urged passage of the plan today, when the council is scheduled to vote on it.
Famously portrayed as the Valley of Ashes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the 61-acre area adjacent to Shea Stadium eventually developed into the Iron Triangle, a pothole-strewn neighborhood lined with auto body shops, scrap yards, and factories both small and large. The city's Economic Development Corporation hopes to transform it, into a bustling mixed-income, mixed-use community. Highlights here include a convention center and LEED-rated housing and office developments.
Monserrate said the city's agreement will include historic levels of affordable housing—35 percent of the 5,500 units—a new 850-seat school, a workforce retraining program, and relocation funds for small businesses.
"Today we stand together in support of a plan that puts people first, the people of Queens,” Monserrate said. “This new and improved plan reflects the true potential of large-scale development projects. It proves that we can include the best long-term planning and the smartest allocation of resources while keeping our moral responsibility to the families and workers affected.”
Monserrate was joined by Christine Quinn, the speaker of the council; Melinda Katz, a fellow Queens representative and chair of the council's land-use committee; Helen Marshall, the Queens borough president and a longstanding supporter of the plan; Robert Lieber, deputy mayor for economic development; and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
(According to PolitickerNY, it is only the second time Bloomberg has made an appearance at a council press conference—the first was the passage of congestion pricing—underscoring how important he considers the project, for which he has taken a number of other unusual steps, like personally lobbying council members.)
Now that it has the support of the local representative, the plan—which had been opposed by 31 members, a majority—will almost certainly pass. There will likely be a few symbolic opposition votes, but members typically defer to local interests. And with the support of the powerful Quinn, the project seems doubly assured of passing.
The last contentious rezoning vote came from Harlem, when a similarly last-minute deal was brokered with Council member Inez Dickens on the future of 125th Street. Then, too, more affordable housing was added to the initial proposal.
Some of the project's advocates are couching their support in terms of the recent financial crisis. “As we find ourselves in the midst of an economic downturn, I urge my fellow members to support responsible and visionary developments like Willets Point," Quinn said. "As we confront such hard economic times, these important projects will create jobs, generate revenues and help keep our City moving forward."
But this is the same rationale critics have been using to attack the project, saying it eliminates well-paying blue collar jobs in favor of minimum-wage service work. Back in June, a number of unions brokered a deal with the mayor to ensure a "living wage" for hotel and retail workers, but those same critics continue to question how such a bargain could be enforced. Also, in light of the current economic climate, some question the decision to evict 260 companies employing 1,700 workers.
Whether or not it impacted his decision today, it should also be noted that Monserrate was elected to higher office last Tuesday. He will join the New York State Senate come January.