BY NICK BUGLIONE
When most people walk along the back streets of downtown Flushing, they see cracked sidewalks, abandoned warehouses and a brand new waste transfer station.
But architect Wellington Chen sees something much different . . . opportunity.
The rezoning that took affect two years ago has tickled Chen’s imagination, sparking the construction of a new electronics retail facility and the development of another project at the nearby Queens County Savings Bank. From that, a dream has arisen that could change the face of downtown Flushing into premiere office, entertainment and shopping space.
SKETCHING A DREAM
“I’ve been here since 1970,” said Chen, a Taiwan native and senior vice president of the Flushing-based TDC Development and Construction Corp. “I’ve been involved in downtown Flushing actively since ’75 because that’s when the town started to go down hill so to speak.”
During the 1970s the mayor and then-Borough President Donald Manes were concentrating their efforts on the development of Jamaica, causing Flushing and other neighborhoods to slip through the cracks. The result would prove to have a devastatingly negative impact on the area that is still felt today, Chen said.
Stores closed down, warehouses were abandoned and residents left the neighborhood in droves with a vast Asian community, brought over from the 1964 World’s Fair, filling the void.
“If you treat [a neighborhood] like gold it becomes gold, if you treat it as trash, it is trash,” Chen said. “Perception becomes reality, there was a flight because a lot of people at the time viewed the glass as half empty and to the Asians coming in the glass was half full.”
In the ensuing years parts of downtown Flushing would become a neighborhood full of eyesores, falling victim to what Chen so commonly refers to as “hodge-podge” development — haphazard and uncoordinated construction.
“It’s like Dodge City,” he said. “I am of the sentiment that I don’t know how we can, every year, sponsor the U.S. Open with the blimp circling overhead showing this to the world.”
The installation of a waste transfer station a few months ago hasn’t done much to improve the aesthetics of Flushing, Chen added. Yet he was quick to point out that all of this can change.
With the rezoning of Flushing in 1998, Chen saw a golden opportunity to significantly enhance the area’s image and improve its quality of life, while generating millions of dollars in revenue.
This vision of opportunity has manifested itself into an extensive plan, entitled The Flushing West Redevelopment Project, that seeks to transform the blighted and vacant warehouse district into a thriving business-oriented oasis.
BUILDING A PLAN
In 1998 the Department of City Planning rezoned Flushing into C4-2 and C4-3 categories, essentially turning the area into the largest regional commercial district within six miles.
“If you go east along Northern Boulevard all the way to the Great Neck line, there’s not another regional shopping center category like C4-2,” said Chen, noting that with this change buildings can now be constructed as tall as the nearby Sheraton Hotel.
Previously in Queens, there have been no major opportunities to build shopping and retail centers comparable to those in Nassau and other counties, Chen said.
“We lose $385 million to Nassau in revenue each year,” Chen said TDC researchers discovered. “We are down to one department store. For the last 20 years Roosevelt Field has been feeding on us.”
The Flushing West Redevelopment Project’s planned development site runs north of Roosevelt Avenue to 37th Avenue, and west from Prince Street to the Flushing River.
Since 1998 TDC Development has pumped over $30 million into the project, buying up some 10 acres of land to be transformed.
Currently in phase one, TDC is working on the construction of a modern office and electronics retail facility on Prince Street between Roosevelt and 39th Avenues and are in predevelopment on a project at the Queens County Savings Bank site east of Main Street between 38th and 39th avenues.
The four-phase plan, which will take 10 years to complete and will approach a billion dollars in cost, calls for the reconstruction of vacant buildings into retail stores, offices, residential structures, entertainment centers and high-tech business facilities.
The creation of an E-Square hopes to attract global business, bringing international investments into the neighborhood.
“We’re going to do it like Madison Avenue. We’re elevating the design bar,” Chen said, explaining that aesthetically pleasing architecture is a large priority of the project. “Within this three-mile radius [in Flushing] we have $1 billion in spending power.”
According to Chen, the extensive construction would cause little disruption and no resident displacement.
“The buildings being transformed are all vacant, rundown, dilapidated eye-sores, so that’s what makes this worthwhile,” he said. “I believe it can be done.”
He also plans for his work to coincide and complement that of Muss Development, which has at its fingertips an additional 14 acres of Flushing real estate that it hopes to develop into a retail and residential area.
Stan Markowitz, senior vice president of Muss Development, said, “He’s quite interested in what we’re doing and we’re quite interested in what he’s doing. We will be taking a look this month at each others projects.”
Though Muss’ project is in its planning stages, Markowitz said that an extensive redevelopment plan for Flushing appears promising.
“This area is crying out for a change from manufacturing to commercial and residential,” said Markowitz.
Chen maintains that other cities, such as Newark and San Diego, have proven that such a lofty redevelopment project can be accomplished.
“We went on a tour around the world,” he said. “I found once you get outside New York this thing is done all the time.”
Yet more significant obstacles apparently exist.
MONEY AND PARKING MATTER
When Chen pitches his idea to community leaders and potential business partners, he starts off with one simple word, borrowing from songwriter John Lennon —”imagine.”
While his propositions seem to have no trouble garnering support, money has been a different story.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive . . . as long as they don’t have to put in money,” he said.
In order to keep the ball rolling, Chen hopes local leaders will get more involved in the project and a redevelopment committee will be forged — creating a chain reaction that will encourage investors to jump on the bandwagon.
So far, elected officials seem receptive to the idea. Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin said, “As a resident of Flushing for 30 years, I support any development of the economy.”
“We support the idea of redevelopment in the area, but the borough president has not supported any one plan over the other,” said Dan Andrews, borough president spokesman.
Nevertheless if the rest of the plan is expected to get off the ground, the government will have to create a special parking plan to mitigate the problem that already plagues the area.
Traffic should figure to be an issue as well, though Chen asserts that with 23 interconnecting buses, 2 express buses, a nearby LIRR station and the highly used 7 train, the new Flushing district would be heavily “transit-oriented.”
Care To Dream?
Step By Step Through The Redevelopment Scene:
Downtown Flushing is not the only area of Queens waiting for a developer with a dream, but throughout the city, the process of turning the dream into mortar and brick is the same.
The first step to any redevelopment project in the borough is to secure property — whether through long-term lease or ownership.
Ensuring the proper zoning is next in line.
If a developer purchases a plot of land and its architectural plans do not conflict with area zoning, then the community board does not get involved in the issue, explained Marilyn Bitterman, district manager of Community Board 7.
However if it conflicts with the criteria set by the Department of City Planning, the developer must apply for a variance with the Board of Standards and Appeals.
“We get the paper work from the attorney and then the board meets on it,” said Bitterman.
Once the board asserts its position on the issue, the borough president’s office then considers the plan. Opinions from both the community board and the borough president are submitted to the Board of Standards and Appeals, which takes them into consideration before making a final decision.
If the variance is granted, planning and construction on the project can move forward.