Whether they want parkland or shopping or a new stadium, for the past seventy-five years, city planners have always had other plans for Willets Point, Queens. The latest, announced Sunday night by Mayor Bloomberg, calls for a retail center to be built adjacent to a new Shea Stadium and possibly used as the International broadcast center during the 2012 Olympics. Once again, the area's businesses are wondering "why us."
REPORTER: City officials call it wasted space. Car owners see it as a cheap place to fix their cars. Brave Mets fans see it as a place to park for free. The area is known either by the bucolic name of Willets Point or pejoratively as the Iron Triangle. In any event, the area saw something unusual this week: sanitation trucks.
Just two days after the Mayor announced plans for a new Shea Stadium and a revised Olympic bid, a crew of trucks moved in. They are hauling away the scrap metal, tires, old appliances, and other junk that is piled up outside the dozens of auto repair shops and junkyards.
One driver said the Mayor would be visiting the area soon, and they were to start cleaning up. It's going to be a tough job.
Just driving down the street is tough. Once you turn off 126th street and head East from Shea Stadium, it's as if you've entered an entirely different city. UPS and Fed-ex trucks lumber along as touts try to wave business into their body shops. The speed limit is an unofficial five miles an hour. Go any faster and your car is in for serious damage from the crater sized potholes.
SAMBUCCI JR: You take any corner in Manhattan and don't give it services for a month. Can you imagine what it would look like? Picture that for 20 years.
REPORTER: Sammy Sambucci would know. His family has run an auto salvage yard on 36th avenue for 54 years. On this hot day, Sammy's father Danny Sambucci Senior was dressed more for Palm Beach than Eastern Queens. Sporting a dark tan and wearing shorts, sandals, a black tank top, gold chain, and large black rimmed glasses. He showed off the neatly stacked parts he and his guys pull from the cars brought in.
SAMBUCCI SENIOR: Transmissions, see all the parts are in here; everything is marked. You know what we had to do here? Forget it. If I had to do it over I'd never do it. Too much time. Too much work. Aggravation, sick, the city's coming they're not coming. We, we're the last ones to get the message they're coming. Hell, I don't know what to tell you.
REPORTER: Sambucci says the decades of uncertainty over whether the city was coming to close them down has lowered the property values and made it next to impossible to get a bank loan.
Sammy Senior says he was rooting for the West Side Stadium.
SAMBUCCI SR: We were all for the city because figuring now they'll leave us alone for the next ten years, but when they dropped that I said to my son and them, they're coming after us they're going to go here and sure enough that's what they planned.
REPORTER: The reason they keep coming back is the area's strategic location. Architect Charles Loeser was hired by the Queens Chamber of Commerce to devise a plan to transform the Iron Triangle. .
LOESER: We see this as an area that can connect flushing to corona, the bay to to the __ … it's the heart of Queens
REPORTER: Loeser's plan for retail and convention space was presented to the City Economic Development Corporation in April. The EDC had been seeking proposals since November of last year, but now will work with the Mayor and Mets to make the surprise stadium plan a reality.
Mayor Bloomberg is just the latest in a long line of city planners who have tried to turn the area around. None other than Robert Moses tried THREE TIMES, but he never fully succeeded. In a 1964 interview, he described the ash mounds that grew on the site before the Grand Central Parkway was built.
MOSES: I think the average height was forty feet and they ran up to sixty feet. Ashes, and fires that burned all the time. Rats that Jack Madigan said were big enough to have saddles on them. They were large. And then miraculously the idea came of having a fair.
REPORTER: Moses had his fair in 1939 and the ash dumps were no more. When he planned a second World's Fair for 1964; he tried again to beautify the area, this time by getting rid of the stacks of flattened cars that now rose from the site. But, Moses ran into a young Italian lawyer representing the junkyards in court-Mario Cuomo. Cuomo handed Moses his biggest - and some say only - defeat. The former Governor says Moses was pursuing an aesthetic vision. Whereas he was defending the little guys….
CUOMO: Losing the site for them would have been devastating because they had nowhere else to go with their business. I had the advantage of what I thought was a reasonable proposition.
REPORTER: Cuomo's clients offered to reduce the size of the car piles and to change their delivery times so they wouldn't get in the way of the fair. But he says Moses was totally unwilling to compromise.
Asked if he would offer any advice for the Mayor as he embarks on what could be a very similar fight, Cuomo deferred, and simply recommended "common sense."
In the scramble to salvage the Olympic bid-- Mayor Bloomberg made it clear on Monday that Willet's Point is in for a change.
BLOOMBERG: We just can't afford to have a piece of property that size that just has junkyards and they'll have to go elsewheres. EDC has…
REPORTER: Back on 35th avenue, Walter Ochoa sat outside the auto glass repair shop where he's worked for eight years.. Across the street from a large puddle and a pile of junk.
Like everyone else in Willets Point WNYC spoke to he says he's heard nothing from the city about its plan to replace their businesses with retail. He questioned why the city is pushing them away.
OCHOA (IN SPANISH w/ TRANSLATION): They are just talking about the bad parts of the junkyard, the worst of what this place has but they never talk to the people to each client that comes to resolve their problems here. We are not harming anybody we are working and helping people… they should come and ask the opinion of people with broken windshields, cars that won't start, and they leave with their problem fixed.
REPORTER: But down the dusty, pocked street, a body shop worker named Michael said he would welcome being relocated. The Afghan native says it would be nice to work in a place that's cleaner and where people feel safe leaving the car.
MICHAEL: We are working hard here and when a customer comes he know trust to leave the car. He's scared. He says 'oh I want to stay with my car and when you finish I want to take the car.
REPORTER: But, it's a lot easier for the auto repair shops to relocate than for the junkyards. They'll need M3 zoning - something which is very hard to come by. A lawyer who says he represents more than 50 percent of the area's business says this time around he thinks the city will get what it wants. The Willets Point businesses are organizing now, but he says they don't have the political clout they once had.
For WNYC, I'm Dan Blumberg.