Going ‘green’ has Willets Point seeing red
Long-neglected area of New York City slated to become ecofriendly development; locals feel ignored.
The pavement surrounding J and L Auto, at the corner of 36th Ave. and Willets Point Blvd., is split open into dozens of fist-sized fractures, exposing the remains of the worn cobblestone underneath. It is a reminder of the storied history of this neighborhood, which sits west of the Flushing River, under the shadow of Citi Field, the future stadium of the New York Mets. It’s also a testament to decades of systemic neglect, both from the city and the mechanics and auto body specialists who work here.Skip to next paragraph
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Hollowed-out wrecks line Willets Point, and industrial runoff spills freely into large, muddy puddles. There are no sidewalks in the “Calcutta of New York,” as it is locally known. There is no sewer system. Shops are packed shoulder to shoulder along the streets, topped by corrugated metal, emblazoned with bright yellow and red signs, and filled with employees who wander out occasionally into the sunlight to offer “the very lowest price.”
“People forget – Willets Point isn’t a town,” says Andrew Wiedhopf, a longtime employee of J and L Auto. “It isn’t a city. It’s just one, enormous, ugly junkyard.”
It’s also, Mr. Wiedhopf concedes, a battleground, although – like most mechanics operating in the area – he estimates that the fight will soon be over. Earlier this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to level the area’s garages and repair shops, paving the way for New York City’s first “green neighborhood.” The designation is based on a few key initiatives: the widespread use of green building technologies to minimize energy use; a wealth of parks, playgrounds, and walkways, which would drive up pedestrian traffic; and the incorporation of “sustainability principles” into design, construction, and cleanup.
The city will also build 5,500 units of housing to serve “a mix of incomes and demographics,” 500,000 square feet of office space, and a large-scale convention center, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of housing units the city plans to build.]
“It’s about sustainability in the long term, and it’s about development. We’re very optimistic,” says Jeff Roberts, vice president of Public Affairs at the NYCEDC. “It’s already in motion.”
But the plan has been met with fierce resistance from local councilmen and business owners, who say that the city has not adequately addressed compensation for displaced workers. In late April, 29 members of the city council sent an open letter to Robert Lieber, the deputy mayor of economic development, calling the redevelopment “unacceptable.” Council members have subsequently sought to block the redevelopment at the district level, although it is unclear whether they will prevail, especially in light of the opening of adjacent Citi Field next spring.
“I’m absolutely not against a green-environment situation,” Councilman Tony Avella says. “For instance, if the city had put in the infrastructure a long time ago, the development would have taken care of itself. It’s this heavy-handedness: The city hasn’t done anything for decades, and now they come in and sweep aside these businesses, some of which have been owned for generations.”