Flushing — Willets Point was still doing brisk business in the middle of October, a week after the City Council had approved its demise, making way for a planned, decades-long redevelopment anchored by a large shopping mall on the park across the street. Outside of a Quonset garage on a corner of 126th Street, Marlon Ramirez took his lunch break next to a stack of tires under the shade of a beach umbrella.

He had first come to Willets Point in the 1980s, an immigrant from Honduras, unskilled and in need of a job. He trained as a car mechanic, and over the next three decades the job supported Ramirez, his two children and his mother in Jamaica, Queens, as well as a disabled brother back in Tegucigalpa. Now he wondered about the future.

For years, the city has been buying up parcels along this stretch of auto-repair shops, with some owners selling amid the active threat of eminent domain. It now owns most (but not all) of the redevelopment site, and it’s offered to help relocate businesses.

The city has already tapped two developers to take over the site: The Related Companies, a key player in other development plans by the Bloomberg administration, and Sterling Equities, the real estate firm of Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz.

But Ramirez’s employer has yet to find new space, and will have to clear out by the end of November in order to get the relocation money promised from the city. No compensation has been offered to Ramirez if he loses his job. He’s one of 1,700 workers employed by the 260 shops on Willets Point. Wiping his weathered fingers on a grimy T-shirt, he noted the new mall would have jobs, but those jobs were not for him.

"Maybe I'll go to Brooklyn," he said in halting English. "The mall won't pay me what I make here. But this will all be a parking lot."

A panic on Willets Point

In August the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) sent a letter to 90 Willets Point businesses occupying land now owned by the city in the footprint of the redevelopment’s first phase. The letter offered the businesses payments equal to 12 months of their current rents if they relocated by the end of November. If they wait until the end of January, the payments would be equal to six months, as long as there’s still money left in the kitty. The payments would come out of a $3.5 million "supplemental" fund and be doled out on a "first-come, first-serve basis."

Muffler shop owner Jamie Sabeti said his rent on an unheated three-bay garage was $2,500 a month, putting his potential payout from the city at just $30,000. "That’s not enough," he said, waving a real-estate listing supplied by the city’s relocation firm. The ad asked double his current rent for a garage in Staten Island. Sabeti employs six people who would likely lose their jobs in such a move—if he can move. "It took me five years to build up enough customers here," he said. "I’ve been in business for 15 years, and I’m going to have to shut down and start over again. What am I going to do in Staten Island? Some shops around here pay just $700 a month [in rent], so the city wants to give them six times $700? That’s not right. The city is giving hundreds of millions to these developers, plus it’s giving them all the land for a buck, and they want us to just disappear."

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Read the rest of this series:
Part 1:
Will a New Mayor Do Development Differently?
Part 2:
Trading Parkland for Developer's Donation

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The Willets Point businesses asserted that they operate as a market, supplying parts and services that contribute to each other’s viability, and 53 of these shops even formed a cooperative with the help of the Urban Justice Center, which formulated a plan to move them to one location. In the end, that plan could not be executed before the city’s November 30 deadline, so in October the administration stipulated that if shops relocate in groups of five or more, the owners could draw from an additional $3 million fund, up to $45,000 per eligible business.

The Willets Point shops will only get a piece of that "supplemental" and group-relocation money if they can find space and move by the end of November. That looks like a tough task. One of the cooperative’s leaders told City Limits that he and other shop owners were being shown properties by the city’s relocation firm, the Cornerstone Group, but no deals had been reached yet. Cornerstone had already collected $369,955 on a $645,000 contract to relocate businesses, but at a September City Council hearing, sparsely attended by Council members, the city revealed that just 10 of the 90 affected businesses had been moved so far. The businesses owners complained they received little more than real estate ads for impractical and expensive locations. But by the time they made this case at the hearing, only one Councilman heard their testimony.

A familiar ring

While Cornerstone did not return calls for this story, the predicament of the Willets Point shop owners sounded awfully familiar to Stanley Mayer, who led the fight to keep 23 merchants together after the city had tapped the Related Companies to build another city-subsidized shopping mall on the site of the old Bronx Terminal Market eight years ago. A dozen former market merchants tracked down for this story all said they ultimately had no help in locating their new places. The other half could not be found; the surviving merchants said these shops were forced out of business, including one of the largest, Cuba Tropical, a 28-year-old produce firm with nearly 60 employees that moved to New Jersey before shutting down.

"We tried to sue Related, but they were too big for us," recalls Kwabena Adjei, manager of Gold Coast Trading, an African food wholesaler now in Melrose. Though Gold Coast has since opened a second outpost in Brooklyn, Adjei says it had to struggle to regain its footing. "Everybody wanted to stay together as a market, but we all had to find our own spaces. It was difficult at first." Gold Coast was forced to take a bigger space that needed extensive renovation. "It’s been more than six years now, and this is the first I’m hearing that we were supposed to get help from the city."