Olaya, tenant businesses ‘waiting for justice’

Arturo Olaya leads a protest against LaGuardia Community College last month.

Arturo Olaya leads a protest against LaGuardia Community College last month.

“We’re waiting.  We really don’t know what’s going to happen. The term limits vote, that means a lot about what’s going to happen.  If they say yes to re-election, then they’ll say yes to Willets Point,” Willets Point Defense Committee President Arturo Olaya said. “At least we’re hoping that these people say, let’s do them justice. Let’s move them.

Olaya and the Willets Point Defense Committee represent the nearly 200 businesses at Willets Point who rent their property from a landlord and have little leverage in the fight to redevelop the area as a result.  Nonetheless, the group has been one of the most vocal critics of the plan — demanding that businesses be relocated and those that rely on one another to be moved together in clusters.

“We’re waiting for justice, you know?  We’re waiting for these councilmen to say, at least give justice to these people. But we don’t know if that’s going to happen.  We’re just waiting,” he said.

The EDC has said they are legally bound from negotiating relocation with tenant business owners until after deals are reached with their landlords. The city has retained the services of the Cornerstone Property Group — who have worked on similar scale developments such as Hudson Yards — to aid in relocation efforts when and if the project is approved and deals are struck with the 49 third-party land owners in the area.

“Cornerstone has already begun their outreach effort and will essentially act as a no-fee broker to identify new locations,” Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber said in his testimony Oct. 17 at City Hall. “Tenant businesses will be eligible for marketing and signage expenses associated with their relocation, along with some moving and storage costs.”

Despite this, the EDC’s chief concern ahead of the vote has been working with property owners, who provide the largest obstacle to a City Council approval for the city’s redevelopment vision. Olaya said Cornerstone’s outreach thus far has consisted of a letter announcing to businesses they have been retained to conduct outreach and relocation assistance.

“It’s the same thing all the time, the city is neglecting us,” Olaya said. “When we went to the hearing, I talked at 4:00 in the afternoon and there was only one councilman there. When Lieber was there, there was 15.  They never want to listen to us.”

Olaya said the tenant business owners are hoping to be relocated in clusters.  The balance of tenant businesses at Willets Point are auto-related, often specializing in one area of auto repair. Olaya said the businesses have forged relationships with one another and rely on each other for parts and business — partnerships he says allow them to offer customers the best service at the best prices.

“It means a lot for them to survive to be moved together,” he said. “In a community like that, we are in clusters, we need each other. A car comes in, one fixes the muffler, the other fixes the windshield. They work together.  If we move in clusters we can survive easier.”

Olaya has also been critical of the Workforce Assistance Plan formed by LaGuardia Community College, designed to provide education and job placement for the 1,700 workers currently employed at the businesses in the area.  He calls the program a slap in the face to workers who have already made careeers for themselves and want to continue them.

LaGuardia officials have said the program is entirely voluntary, and will only serve as another option for workers who don’t want to go through the relocation process.  Laguardia’s first trip to Willets Point in a mobile classroom was met by protest from Olaya and workers from the area.

“They bring that mobile truck over here and they say they’re going to give training. They give out letters, and they say at the end of the letter, we do not guarantee you are going to get a job,” he said. “If the city wants to relocate us in clusters, they don’t have to hire a real estate company, they don’t need LaGuardia to come here.”

“The city has not come to talk to us. I really hope they do,” he added. “I really hope they give us some justice.”

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