QUEENS — It's the Crossroads of the World...at the end of the 7 train.
The revitalization of Willets Point — the industrial Queens neighborhood that is set to undergo an extensive renovation — could help transform the neighborhood like the project that helped reclaim 42nd Street two decades ago, the president of the Economic Development Corporation said Tuesday.
While the finished neighborhood will be “very different” from Times Square, the redevelopment is being approached the same way, Kyle Kimball, the EDC president said while speaking at a public hearing at City Hall.
The plan to turn a heavily-polluted portion of Willets Point from a stretch of auto-body repair shops into a massive retail and residential destination was first proposed in 2008. The latest version of the plan will redevelop the area in phases, which is similar to what happened in Times Square beginning in the 1980s, Kimball said.
“The transformation of 42nd Street from a decaying district into a world class cultural center and business district has, in turn, raised the profile of the entire West Side," he said.
The two projects, he noted, are similar in that they had a clear vision — but faced complex land-use decisions and economic downturns over several decades.
Both projects also faced opposition and legal challenges from existing tenants.
Kimball said the “historic” plan will “reclaim [an] underutilized site to create a dynamic new community” and will first include retail and public space, including a 200-room hotel and entertainment such as a movie theater.
Future phases will include 5,500 units of housing, with 35 percent of them affordable, and a new school that will add 1,000 new seats to the overcrowded district.
The project, next to CitiField, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and the National Tennis Center, is being developed by the Queens Development Group, a joint venture between Sterling Equities and the Related Companies, and will be paid for with private and public dollars.
Business owners at the auto-body shops along 126th Street, though, have protested the city’s plan to move them and develop the land.
Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, who represents the area, said Tuesday she was concerned about her constituents who’ve made a living at Willets Point.
“I want to ensure the proposed development is fair and balanced with consideration to the existing tenants,” she said.
In July, Marco Neira, who runs the for-profit group controlled by 52 auto body businesses in the area, said the city isn't providing the kind of help they need.
He said the group had asked the city to move the shops together, like the Fulton Fish Market, which will help them retain the same amount of business.
The EDC said they’ve reached out to every store owner involved with the first phase of development at least five times, and have provided job placement and offered classes through LaGuardia Community College.
On Friday, a group of shop owners began a hunger strike to draw attention to the “complete injustice” of the development plan, they said.
The City Planning Commission approved the plan in August, and the city council is expected to vote on the plan in October.