The redevelopment of the Willets Point neighborhood, which is currently a run-down, dirt road business district that has been classified by the city as an area in need of major environmental overhaul, has been surrounded by controversy since it was announced, and the approval of a modified reconstruction and development has not put an end to much of the frustration felt by many of the more than 1,700 employees who have worked in the area for years.
The redevelopment, which will remediate the land before raising it above the ten-year flood plain and creating more than 5,000 units of housing, retail space, and a new convention center, will require the relocation of more than 250 small businesses.
Many of the businesses specialize in automotive repair and industrial salvage, and several business owners are reluctant to leave, arguing that there are few locations in New York City suitable for their type of business.
But four months after the Willets Point development was approved and the city began aggressively acquiring property in the area, employees of Willets Point businesses are saying that the business classes offered to them by the city are useless, and that not enough is being done to adequately relocate their businesses. Likewise, they say, efforts to retrain workers through courses at LaGuardia Community College are making matters worse.
“We don’t need training, we just need a place to move our businesses,” said Marcos Neira, president of the Willets Point Defense Committee. “Everybody who works at Willets Point is already skilled, and we don’t need any more training. The city is insulting us.”
Alfredo Clavistad, who has been employed as an auto body worker in Willets Point for the past decade, said that he didn’t need any training.
“I’m 53 years old, and I don’t need training, I need work,” he said. “Even if I did receive training, who would hire me? If my boss is relocated, than I will have a job and I don’t need anything from the city.”
A large percentage of the workers employed at Willets Point are undocumented immigrants who say that they would have a hard time finding employment at other agencies or through city-run placement programs.
“A majority of workers in the area don’t have papers, and getting a new job would create enormous problems,” said Sergio Aguirre, an organizer with the Willets Point Defense Committee. “Even if they are retrained, they can’t get jobs. There are thousands of people unemployed in New York City, and these workers can’t compete when looking for jobs.”
Not only do the workers consider themselves adept at their occupations and in little need of additional education, but they feel that the money spent on creating and offering the classes should have gone to fund the relocation of businesses, an initiative that they say has been lacking so far.
In a letter addressed to LaGuardia Community College students, workers, and professors, the Willets Point Defense Committee argued, “the courses are being used politically by the mayor who falsely shows the public that everything is going well at Willets Point.”
Willets Point business owners have been offered $3 million in total in relocation assistance from the city, which works out to a little less than $12,000 per business. Yet LaGuardia Community College has received $2.5 million to provide training courses, and the Willets Point Defense Committee feels that that money should have been used to provide further relocation assistance.
“These people have been technicians for years,” said Aguirre. “At Willets Point, you can get what you need done for the best price. This a very useful place, and New York City needs it, especially now that nobody is buying new cars. We’re asking the city to forget about retaining. We’re looking for relocation and compensation.”