EAST ELMHURST, Queens – Dubbed “the valley of ashes” by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” the area along the Flushing River was once a desolate wasteland used by the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company as a dumping ground for the coal industry.
Nearly 90 years later, the ‘valley of ashes’ might be called the valley of auto body shops. Just a few steps across the street from the Mets’ home field, the clanking of metal and sound of revving engines on 126th street can drown out even the loudest baseball crowd.
In the coming years, Willets Point will change once again. At a breakfast hosted by the Queens Chamber of Commerce at the Laguardia Airport Marriott, the Mayor relayed the vision for a full-scale redevelopment of the area that will include retail stores, hotels, restaurants, office buildings and housing units.
“For generations Willets Point was neglected, no investments were made in the roads or in sewers or in environmental remediation,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “Civic and business leaders have been trying to get the city on this project for decades. When we came into office we listened and saw what you saw. An area that was incredibly well positioned for jobs and housing.”
The plans for a Willets Point redevelopment project were approved by the City Council four years ago.
The transformation into phase one of the project is expected to create 12,000 union construction jobs and 7,100 permanent jobs, according to the city’s projections. The construction will bring $3 billion of private investment into Queens and produce $310 million in construction tax revenues and $150 million in annual tax revenues.
Phase One will bring the remediation of 23 acres of contaminated land. 126th Street will see the construction of a 200-room hotel, 30,000 square feet of retail stores and restaurants and 20-acres of interim recreational space.
“Thanks to an innovative design, new ball fields will bring families to the area when the Mets are away and during the off-season,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “That means for the first time in modern memory there will be an open place at Willets Point for soccer, baseball, basketball and other activities for kids and adults alike. On game days, the fields will be rolled back and used as temporary parking lots.”
The plan also includes the construction of 2,500 community housing units, 875 of which are to be affordable residences. The remaining land is reserved for more than 200 retail stores, movie theaters and restaurants.
The hope is to entice more Queens residents to shop in the borough instead of doing their shopping in Nassau County, Mr. Bloomberg said.
According to the Mayor, the city has negotiated relocation agreements with current Willets Point businesses and property owners. Successful agreements have been reached with the owners of nearly 95 percent of the property needed for the first phase.
The Sambucci Brothers, an auto body shop that has been in Willets Point for more than 60 years, was the first business to make a deal with the city to relocate.
“I don’t think they’re gonna create jobs in redevelopment,” said salesman Sam Sambucci of Whitestone. “I think you’re actually losing jobs. You’re changing the type of job and I don’t think you’re creating anything more. To take [the area] from what it is now, I don’t see it.”
Around the corner at the Best Auto Plaza, skepticism was abundant.
“This is how the rich people get richer, this is how they make money,” said Alex of Forest Hills, a manager who asked that the Queens Beat withhold his last name.
The project is headed by the Queens Development Group, a joint venture between Sterling Equities, Inc. and Related Cos. If the plan is not completed in the projected time frame, the group must pay the city $35 million.
The city first broke ground in December 2011 with a $50 million investment in the construction of a sewer main and the renewal of a 126th Street storm sewer.
The redevelopment of Willets Point is an ongoing project, said Seth Pinsky, President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. He noted that construction will likely start at the beginning of 2014 and is projected to be completed within 10 to 15 years.
The Mayor also announced an expansion plan by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) to bring more than 10,000 people a day to the U.S. Open. The Open, according to Mr. Bloomberg, generates more than $750 million a year and 6,000 seasonal jobs, of which 41 percent go to borough residents.
Through a $500 million investment, the USTA will replace Louis Armstrong Stadium, build a new grandstand, relocate 7 tournament courts, create new parking and more retail space.
“The Willets Point redevelopment project and the USTA expansion will help New York City continue to out pace the nation in job growth,” Bloomberg said. “They will also help improve the overall quality of life for Queens residents and make Queens an even more attractive destination for New Yorkers and our visitors.”
Photo of Carlo’s auto body shop via grandzmuzik on Instagram