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In my last post I told you about an event attended on Saturday the tenth of January at the Queens Museum, which put a spotlight on the topographical relief map of the NYC water system. Despite hurdles offered by MTA and the weather, I somehow made it there from Astoria.

On Sunday the eleventh, a repeat of my journey to the institution, housed in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, was enacted. This time, the Queens Museum was merely the place where a walking tour of the so called Iron Triangle at Willets Point was meeting up, an excursion led by the official Queens Borough Historian – Dr. Jack Eichenbaum. I’ve been lucky enough to know him for a while now, and I’m pretty sure that we met during the Queensboro Bridge Centennial celebrations back in 2009. When I heard that he would be doing this tour, inquiries whether or not I could come along were made and he graciously invited me (and you Q’Stoners) along.

Here’s what we saw along the way – with lots of photos after the jump.

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Jack Eichenbaum grew up in Bayside in the 1950s. He left for academic and vocational reasons in 1963, and when he returned from completing his doctorate in urban geography in 1976, he found a completely different borough. The mostly white, working class neighborhoods of his youth had transformed into multi-ethnic enclaves, creating the world’s most diverse county. Fascinated, he started giving walking tours of his beloved hometown in the 1980s, and in 2010, Eichenbaum was designated the official historian of Queens, as per the borough president’s office. The former city assessor has five upcoming tours, which are famous for the amount of local trivia he shares and the great restaurants he hits afterwards with participants. For more information, please see below.

  • Willets Point, Sunday, May 25th, 4 pm: East of Citi Field is a sewerless, hardscrabble area of auto junkyards and related businesses that has twice beaten back recent attempts at redevelopment. But since it’s located between the world famous baseball stadium and booming Flushing, public and private interests are again trying to transform Willets Point. Eichenbaum will walk from central Flushing to the area, while discussing political, economic and ecological issues and explaining why “Willets Point” is a misnomer. $20.
  • The World of the 7 Train, Saturday, May 31st, 10 am: Eichenbaum calls this full-day program his “signature tour,” although it’s actually a series of six walks (Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Corona and Flushing) and connecting rides. He focuses on the 7 train’s influence on surrounding neighborhoods. Lunch is in Flushing. Pre-register via jaconet@aol.com.
  • On and Off Jamaica Avenue, Sunday, June 8th, 10 am: After decades of dedication, redesign, and redevelopment, Downtown Jamaica is undergoing a renaissance as the borough’s major transportation center. Eichenbaum promises historic buildings, commercial activity, culture, and a surprise ending. $20.
  • Crossing Newtown Creek: Contrasting Industrial Brooklyn & Queens, Sunday, July 27th, 10 am: See remnants of the intense and largely unregulated industrial development that thrived along Newtown Creek during the late 19th century. See elegant Greenpoint highlights and East River shoreline redevelopment ending with shoreline views from Gantry Park and Hunter’s Point.
  • More Space and New Arrangements in Western Queens, Sunday, August 3rd, 10 am: During the first third of the 20th century, Western Queens nurtured developments where traditional open space/building area relationships were altered to create new urban architecture. Sunnyside Gardens and the Jackson Heights Historic District anchor this tour, which includes Phipps Garden Apartments, various Matthews Flats, the Metropolitan Life houses, and early truck-oriented industrial buildings.

Photo: Alex Engel

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Vanishing New York published a collection of photos taken by Tim Schreier of the dead zone that now occupies Willets Point. As he told VNY, “What I saw was a few businesses hanging on but, for the most part, it was like a ghost town.” Many of the small auto businesses decided to move to the Bronx. For those that decided to stay, it’s likely the city will use eminent domain to clear the 62 aces of land. And of course, this once diverse, dense collection of auto body shops will be replaced by a mega mall.

Willets Vanishing [Vanishing New York]

Photo by Tim Schreier

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A cooperative of 40 to 60 Willets Point businesses signed a lease to leave Willets Point and relocate to Hunts Point in the Bronx, reports the Wall Street Journal. The group — which calls itself the Sunrise Cooperative — is mostly made up of auto body and repair shops. It’s the largest group to leave Willets Point, and in a relocation agreement with the city will be eligible for $2,000,000. Two thirds of 130 Willets Point businesses accepted city benefits to relocate (the city stopped offering any benefits at the end of January), despite many businesses opposing the city’s relocation deal.

Now around 50 businesses remain in the area, still refusing to leave. The city hopes to vacate Willets Point by spring in order to make way for a mega-mall development as well as 2,500 units of housing.

Willets Point Shops Ink Deal [Wall Street Journal]
All Willets Point coverage [Q’Stoner]

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Queens Chronicle shares more details on the lawsuit filed against the Willets Point development by Senator Tony Avella, the New York City Park Advocates organization, local businesses and residents, and The City Club. Initially it was unclear what the lawsuit would charge, but as guessed, the focus is on the loss of parkland to build the mega mall. According to the Chronicle, “The suit charges that the mall, approved by the City Council near the end of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s last term, cannot be built without the approval of the state Legislature because the location is parkland.” The lawsuit claims the developer’s plan violates the City Charter and zoning regulations — the goal is to annul city approvals to build the mega mall. And while the Bloomberg administration deemed the plan legal under a 1961 law allowing the construction of Shea Stadium, the lawsuit states that the “interpretation of the law is blatantly incorrect.” It does not look like the lawsuit tackles any issues faced by Iron Triangle tenants, forced to leave the area to make way for development.

The plaintiffs officially filed the suit today in Manhattan.

Suit Challenges Legality of Flushing Meadows Mall Plan in Queens [Queens Chronicle]
Lawsuit Filed to Stop Willets Point Development [Q’Stoner]
All Willets Point Coverage [Q’Stoner]

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Today Senator Tony Avella, City Club, NYC Park Advocates and a group of Corona businesses and residents will file a lawsuit in hopes to stop the construction of a mega mall at Willets Point. Queens Chronicle states that it’s not yet clear what the legal reasoning is behind the suit, but it’s likely it has something to do with using parkland from Flushing Meadows-Corona Park for the development. And it doesn’t look like Willets Point United is involved in the lawsuit, although the group long advocated for tenant rights at the Iron Triangle.

The city has stated that taking the parkland is legal under an agreement signed with the Mets in 1961, which never replaced parkland used for Shea Stadium. The project will take away about 30 acres of park to build the city’s largest mall.

Suit to Stop Willets Point Project to be Filed Friday [Queens Chronicle]
All Willets Point Coverage [Q’Stoner]

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NY1 reports that this Friday is the last day Willets Point businesses can move out if they want rent assistance from the city. The city paid businesses a full year’s rent if they relocated by November 30th, now the city is offering six month’s rent until Friday. The Economic Development Corporation reports that it helped relocate about 50 businesses, mostly within Queens, to help make way for the planned mega mall. The existing Willets Point tenants (who have long opposed the city’s relocation deal) plan to reach out to Mayor de Blasio and the new City Council. Bloomberg’s City Council approved development plans here this past fall.

Willets Point Businesses Have Few Days To Move Out To Get Rent Assistance [NY1]

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Over the weekend the New York Daily News tallied up all the mega developments slated for Queens. These planned high rises will dramatically change the Queens skyline over the next 20 years. Here’s the breakdown of what’s to come:

  • Rockrose Development’s plans for the tallest residential building in Queens will rise 500 feet high. 43-25 Hunter Street, dubbed “Citibank’s girlfriend,” is expected to open in 2016.
  • The Wolkoff family is bringing a pair of 41- and 48-story towers to the 5Pointz site. There will be roughly 1,000 housing units.
  • The Willets Point project (rendered above) is expected to bring buildings as tall as 20 stories. The site will someday house 2,500 housing units, although a mega mall is coming first.
  • When the Hunters Point South project wraps on the waterfront, it’ll rise as high as 41 stories. It will hold 5,000 apartments, 60 percent of which are affordable.
  • The Hallets Point project includes 2,400 apartment units across seven towers. It will rise up to 31 stories, and the project should wrap in 2022.
  • Arriving in 2015, the Astoria Cove project (located right near the Hallets Point development) includes five towers (as tall as 30 stories) and 2,400 units.
  • The long-in-the-works Flushing Commons development is now underway, it will bring 600 luxury condos, a YMCA and a retail complex to a former Flushing parking lot. ETA: 2021.

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The Willets Point buyouts are happening, and the sales are starting to hit public records. ACRIS shows that the City of New York purchased a two-parcel commercial site at 126-40 36th Avenue and 126-50 36th Avenue. The price? $2,400,000. The city offered a full year’s rent to relocating tenants until earlier this month, from now until January 31st the city will pay out for six months. So far, around 300 businesses have either shuttered or relocated for the coming megamall development. GMAP

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The city’s Industrial Development Agency voted 12-1 with one abstention to approve $42,600,000 of property-tax abatements and mortgage-recording-tax exemptions for Willets Point, reports Crain’s. The City Council approved development plans this fall; the city’s $1 sale of 23 acres to Queens Development Group became official last month. All these tax breaks, unsurpsingly, sparked controversy given the $1 sale to developers. State Senator Tony Avella, who has long opposed the development plans, stated that “This whole thing has been a disaster from beginning to end. How do you justify [giving] tens of millions of taxpayer money when you’re selling the property to the developers for a dollar?” As Crain’s points out, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio plans to cut $2 to $3 billion in city-approved tax breaks per year.

Hudson Yards, Willets Point Receive Tax Breaks [Crain’s]
Willets Point Developers Ask City for $43 Million in Tax Breaks [Q’Stoner]