After an unintelligible city meeting on Willets Point, an assemblyman demands a do-over

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At another meeting in Corona. (Dana Rubinstein)
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In late September, the city hosted a meeting to solicit input from the community about an enormous new mall planned for a parking lot west of Citi Field that's technically part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

The community's input is required for what's known as a "supplemental environmental impact statement." A supplemental review is needed because the original plan for Willets Point has changed substantially since it was first approved in 2008. 

The meeting was held in Corona, a heavily immigrant neighborhood that borders Flushing Meadows Corona Park to the west.

Not surprisingly, at least half the attendees did not speak English, according to Make the Road New York lead organizer Hilary Klein, who attended the meeting. 

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The city wasn't entirely unaware of the language issue. It advertised the event in El Diario la Prensa, and dispatched three translators who could speak Spanish, Bengali, and Cantonese. But those translators did not translate the presentation, the one outlining the scope of the mall about whose impact the city was supposed to be soliciting input, according to two letters of complaint subsequently sent to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Nor did the city provide simultaneous translation technology of the sort typically associated with U.N. meetings (or Star Trek).

The city says it has to rent such technology, and so that technology has to be requested ahead of time and no request for that, or any other language accommodation, was made.

"During the presentation, a woman stood up and shouted, in Spanish, 'What's going on? We don't understand any of this! How are we supposed to respond,'" recalled Klein, who's fluent in Spanish.

Here's how Times columnist Michael Powell described it: "A city interpreter began by standing and explaining in Spanish to a vastly Latino crowd that it would offer no simultaneous translation into Spanish. But, he noted brightly, you are welcome to use the agency’s Spanish language Web site."

"The lack of translation did not allow the vast majority of community residents to understand adequately the scope of work that [the Economic Development Corporation] was presenting, therefore creating more confusion and frustration," wrote Assemblyman Francisco Moya, in one of the letters of complaint. 

Since the meeting was required to solicit community input, and much of that community had no idea what was happening, Moya requested the city do the meeting all over again.

So did Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, in a similar letter sent a few days before, on behalf of the newly formed Fairness Coalition of Queens.

The city has yet to respond to either letter.

But it has since posted translated versions of the meeting materials on its Web site.

The public comment period has also been extended to October 26.

"We take these concerns very seriously as we would with respect to any public hearing held in communities throughout the city, and following a thorough review we will be responding in concert with the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination," said EDC spokesman Ben Branham, in a statement.