Few corners of the city exemplify the political inertia that can delay environmental remediation as well as Willets Point.
Nestled in between Shea Stadium, Flushing Meadow Corona Parks, and the Flushing River, this 16 block enclave of pock-marked streets, auto body shops and junkyards known locally as the Iron Triangle has long been a magnet for trash and a generator of toxic runoff for decades. One need only pass overhead on the Flushing-bound 7 train to witness the resulting blight: Wind and rain patterns have pushed the trash and oil so deep into the Flushing River watershed it's hard to tell where the human devastation stops and the natural ecosystem begins.
Though an obvious target for cleanup, Willets Point has to date defied all attempts to do so. The reasons generally boil down to economics: To get the land, the city would have to pay to relocate existing businesses. Throw in remediation costs and whatever legal fees might accrue in the process and it isn't too surprising that most redevelopment plans have rarely made it past the planning stage.
For David Oats, former editor of the Queens Tribune and current chairman of the Queens Olympic Committee, a group dedicated to reshaping Flushing Meadows Corona Park into an Olympics-worthy venue, it's hard not to memory the spirit of Robert Moses when discussing the stubborn parcel. It was here, after all, that Moses, political architect of Flushing Meadows, the Cross Bronx Expressway and dozens of other public works projects, met one of his most humbling defeats. As president of the 1964 World's Fair, Moses sought to condemn local properties and integrate Willets Point into an expanded Flushing Meadows park complex. To defend their interests, junkyard owners hired a young Queens attorney named Mario Cuomo. For both men, it was a turning point. Cuomo won the case and went on to the governor's office. Moses lost and went into grudging retirement.
"To his dying day, Moses was frustrated that there were still junkyards in Willets Point," says Oats, who remembers running into an elderly Robert Moses. "In the last conversation I had with him, I mentioned Willets Point at one point and his first question was 'Are those damn junkyards finally gone?'"
Undaunted, Oats and the Queens Olympic Committee have taken up the Moses-worthy challenge of redeveloping Willets Point. In doing so, they've hitched a ride on a national wave of municipal stadium projects not to mention the growing political resistance to the mayor's own West Side Jets stadium plan. Billing a Jets stadium in Willets Point as the ultimate kill-two-birds-with-one-stone bargain, Oats sees a chance to pull off what Moses never could: an Olympics-worthy park complex stretching from La Guardia Airport in the north to the Jamaica Railyards in the south while cleaning up the Flushing River in the process.
"This site eliminates every problem we've got," he says. "You can reclaim the air, clean up the trash, combine water quality, and build a stadium with better access to major transportation resources."
Oats punctuates the pitch with a flourish: "It's even got the globe sitting there."
That "globe" would be the Unisphere, a relic of the 1964 World's Fair and a symbolic reminder of the world-hosting ambitions that built Flushing Meadows in the first place. With the city angling to play host to the 2012 Olympics, Oats and other community leaders see Queens as a natural launching point.
The plan is a long shot, of course. The mayor's office, which has invested heavy political capital into the proposed $1.4 billion West Side stadium project ($2.8 billion if you factor in expansion of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and extension of the No. 7 subway line) has already dismissed the Queens stadium plan as unworkable. Still, in the two years since Oats first started ferrying newspaper reporters out to Willets Point in an attempt to drum up media interest, other community leaders have jumped onboard. According to the West Queens Gazette, members of Community Board 3 endorsed plans for a Willets Point stadium in February. Last month, Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-Queens/Brooklyn) threw his own support behind the Oats plan. Weiner dismissed the west side stadium with its proposed $600 million taxpayer subsidy as "staggeringly expensive" and suggested Willets Point as a "better, cheaper, more transparent alternative."
"It just makes sense," says Queens attorney Corey Bearak, a participant in past studies designed to assess the feasibility of a Queens-based NFL stadium. "I have not visited a stadium or a stadium site anywhere in the country where you have an interstate coupled with a major limited access highway (Northern Blvd.) coupled with subway and light rail (Long Island Railroad). Throw in the opportunity for ferry access, it's a unique situation."
Not all Queens leaders have bought off on the plan, of course. Councilmember Hiram Monserrate from Corona finds it hard to justify any proposal that would replace a thriving, albeit ugly economic district, with a taxpayer-subsidized home for a team that abandoned the borough only 21 years ago.
"I have concerns," Monserrate says. "Are we merely insuring profits for corporations that are already doing well on their own? Secondly, are we providing a place for displaced businesses? The last thing we need to be doing is replacing good, sustainable jobs with entry level positions selling peanuts at football games. "
From an environmental perspective, Paul Graziano, a Green Party challenger for the District 20 council seat in 2001, is leery of any deal that would link stadium construction with environmental cleanup. Environmental advocates need only visit East Rutherford New Jersey to get a glimpse of how poorly a three stadium complex can blend in with a local, aquatic ecosystem. What's more, should the stadium plan fall through, Queens activists will have lost yet another step to their counterparts in the Bronx and Staten Island, places where sustained community pressure is finally yielding a turnaround for distressed waterways such as the Bronx River and Fresh Kills.
"It shouldn't take the Olympics to clean up things," says Graziano.
Such sentiments may be true in principle, says Oats, but as recent history has shown, especially in geographically divided Queens, an attention-getting solution and a deadline to match are quite often the "only way" to break through political gridlock.
"If you don't have a big plan, you're going to get mired in the minutiae," says Oats. "Moses learned that early on. When the 1939 Worlds Fair came along, he saw a chance to get rid of the (Flushing) dump and suddenly heaven and earth moved. Then the war came and he couldn't finish his park off, so he waited for the next chance. When the idea for the second Worlds Fair came around, he became the president and built the park."
Oats, a Moses admirer, hesitates to compare himself to the man whose earth-moving ambitions once sank in the morass of Willets Point. Still, even for those with a fraction of the Moses political will, the current Olympics bid is emerging as the latest "once in a lifetime opportunity" to clean up a piece of the borough and have the rest of the world help pick up the tab.
"Willets Point has gone through so many cleanup attempts and for some quirky reason or another, they've all failed," he says. "I don't want my grandchildren dealing with this problem because we couldn't get it done when we had the chance."