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Willets Point Business Owners Await City's $3B Redevelopment

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of a series on soon-to-change neighborhoods, Kensinger visits Willets Point to see what the area looks like now, before the city's $3 billion redevelopment plan truly begins.

[Many small businesses in Willets Point have been forced to close or have moved out of the area in the past month, as the city prepares to redevelop the neighborhood. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

The pace of change is quickening in Willets Point. After years of scheming, the city is now clearing a path towards their $3 billion redevelopment plan for this Queens neighborhood. In the past month, it has twice sent inspectors to close down auto-body shops located in the footprint of "Phase 1"?the 23 acre swath of land that the NYCEDC expects to start demolishing in 2014. The government inspectors first arrived in late May, issuing vacate orders to several shops across the street from Citi Field, and then returned last week, when "the Department of Buildings forcibly shuttered 10 more businesses," according to the Daily News. These sudden changes have left many of the business owners in Willets Point concerned for their future.

Willets Point houses over 200 businesses on a small plot of land known as the Iron Triangle, ranging from muffler shops and hubcap kings to scrapyards and recycling plants. Many of these establishments are, ironically, tenants of the city, which has managed to acquire at least 95 percent of the land needed for Phase 1 of their Willets Point Development Plan. As a result, "after one branch of city government issued several Willets Point business owners violations and shut down their body shops earlier this month, another branch will now pay to fix them," according to the Times Ledger. Needless to say, confusion now reigns among the businesses located in Phase 1. Some estimate they may have only a few months left in the neighborhood, some believe they have years. Some have been promised relocation assistance, some claim they have been offered nothing. While there are still several hurdles for the city to clear before their redevelopment process can begin, the landscape of this unique neighborhood is changing fast, and the number of empty buildings and shuttered shops is on the rise.  

This pile of car doors was dragged from the roof of an auto-body shop, after it received a safety violation from the Department of Buildings.  

Workers pitched the car parts into a dumpster, hoping to reopen and return to work. "One day without working is a lot of money," said a business owner whose shop was closed last week. "I have three boys."

Carma Corp., a nearby muffler and tire shop, was also closed by city inspectors last week. "It might take two weeks or one month" to reopen, said Aureliano Carmagnola, who has owned the shop for 15 years.

In the meantime, Carmagnola (left), who rents his space from the city, is waiting for his landlord to assist him with his violation. After reopening, he expects to be in the neighborhood for several more years. "They gonna start the build around 2025," he said. "We'll be here 5 more years, then we have to leave."   

This tow truck business moved out of the area in the past few weeks, according to next-door-neighbor Jay Sierra, who owns J&A Towing.  Like Sierra, who also rents his space from the city, they expected their business to be closed down soon. "The word is August, but I haven't heard anything official."

"What am I going to do? I'm trying to see if they had some kind of help but they haven't had anything," said Sierra. "No relocation money. No nothing." He may move out of the neighborhood in the next month, without assistance from the city.

In spite of the city's plans, many businesses in Willets Point remain open for customers. "If the dealers don't have it, you can get it down here," said a livery cab driver, while waiting for his car to be fixed. 

"This place looks like nothing, but they generate a lot of money," said the driver. "It's prime property."

Besides auto-body shops, Willets Point also houses scrapyards, recycling centers, street vendors, a spice importer, and a motorcycle club founded in 1910. Over 1,000 workers are employed in the neighborhood. 

Though filled with constant car traffic, the neighborhood's streets are often flooded. The city has never installed a proper sewage system in the area, despite decades of requests from business owners.

In preparation for their coming development, however, the city is finally creating a sewage system, with workers laying a bulkhead into a sewer trench.

In the meantime, the streets of the Iron Triangle remain flooded during rainstorms, lined with empty storefronts and debris. "The city said they have a place for us," said Aureliano Carmagnola, but "when you move to a new location, its hard to pick up the business."

"Anyway, they going to do something nice over here," said Carmagnola, who has worked in Willets Point since 1989. "They build some apartments, some shopping." Where the hundreds of displaced businesses and workers will end up is another question.
?Nathan Kensinger
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