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
"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
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
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
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
"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."
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