Evolution or gentrification?
That’s the question New York City leaders will need to answer as to whether or not an ambitious housing and retail project in Queens should move forward or be tabled.
A development consortium wants to build more than 1,700 units of housing, a hotel and office and retail space on the Flushing waterfront — a swath that’s long been abandoned, not to mention stinky.
The city is evaluating the project in the wake of a failed proposal to turn Industry City in Brooklyn into a business hub and the collapse of Amazon’s plans to build a huge headquarters in Queens.
Faced with growing backlash from local activists, the Flushing project could be the next large project to bite the dust — and that while the city is struggling with massive tax revenue shortfalls inflicted by the coronavirus outbreak.
A drama familiar to those who follow development has been underway since F&T Group, United Construction and Development Group Inc. and Young Nian Group proposed their $1 billion project for 40 acres along the Flushing Creek in December.
The developers insist their project will be a win-win, touting job growth, a portion of units to be set aside at “affordable” rates and partnerships with local do-gooders in space that will be reserved for community groups. The development will pay $165 million in taxes per year, according to Helen Lee, executive vice president of F&T Group. She sees it as the next step in the evolution of Flushing, a mostly working-class hub of Asian culture.
On the other side, activists who say the project would worsen gentrification, raise rents and drive out locals.
“It’s ridiculous that we’re not talking about, how do we use the land that’s available to us to meet the needs of the community?” said William Spisak of the nonprofit Chhaya Community Development Corporation, which is suing over the project. “Instead, we’re talking about ‘How do we help developers make more money?’”
Declaring “Flushing is a neighborhood under siege,” the suit from Chhaya and other groups is demanding an “environmental review” of the project, a process that could draw out or derail the approval process.
During a February meeting of the local community board, protesters chanted “shame” at board members as they weighed the project, according to the Queens Daily Eagle.
“It’s irresponsible,” Lee said of the backlash. “If this project doesn’t get approved, think about how demoralizing that is. Everybody is just trying to make it work.”
For the developers to use a part of the waterfront that’s currently zoned for manufacturing, they need city approval. The local community board voted in favor of the project, the first in a long series of steps before it can start. But acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee is against the development, and local Councilman Peter Koo is still on the fence.
“The waterfront project has many merits and we want to make it work,” Koo’s spokesman, Scott Sieber, said in a statement. “Right now, we’re still evaluating and working with stakeholders in hopes of creating a project that will bring the most benefits to our community.”
Final say rests with the City Council and Mayor de Blasio — which, based on their recent track record, could spell the project’s doom.
The Council dithered on Industry City’s rezoning application, prompting the developer to scrap its plans to turn 5.3 million square feet of warehouses into retail and office space last month. Industry City is expected to move ahead with less ambitious plans.
Last year, Council members lambasted Amazon’s plans for a new headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, helping push the tech giant to back out. After years of developer-friendly deals under the Bloomberg administration, city leaders voiced outrage over perks de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo had offered Amazon.
“If we end up having an anti-dynamic climate, a stagnation-oriented climate, then we won’t have the jobs and we won’t have the housing that New Yorkers need,” said Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who vigorously opposed the Amazon headquarters, was non-committal on the Flushing project.
“Speaker Johnson will work closely with Council Member Koo to determine how to move forward should the [City Planning Commission] advance the application,” a Council spokesperson said in a statement.
Comment from De Blasio’s office was ambiguous, at best.
“Flushing deserves more jobs and open space as we rebuild a fairer and better city,” said mayoral spokesman Mitch Schwartz. “We’re looking closely at this plan as it moves through the land use review process.”
Setha Low, an urban anthropologist at the CUNY Graduate Center, sympathized with those who object to the Flushing project and said the city needs to rethink its approach to development.
“This is going to be a really hard time for the city,” she said, adding that the city should “put pressure on [developers] to come up with strategies for development that make sense for a place like New York. We’ve got a lot of creative people.”
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