BY SAM RAPPAPORT
The city’s Department of City Planning (DCP) is proposing a zoning text amendment that would force hotels planned for light-manufacturing districts, also known as M1 districts, through a process of public scrutiny before being approved.
On Monday, the Queens Borough Board—along with Council members Barry Grodenchik (D-Oakland Gardens), Adrienne Adams (D-Jamaica), Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) and Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton)—listened to a presentation on the proposed text amendment by DCP City Planner Jackie Sunwoo.
Sunwoo said that increasing rates of tourism throughout the city have led to dramatic expansions of the hotel industry. The zoning text amendment, which would require special permits for hotels in M1 districts, is an attempt by the city to check and regulate this growth.
“The hotel market has really extended beyond Manhattan,” Sunwoo said. “Queens is the second-largest hotel market of the five boroughs.”
According to the DCP’s numbers, there were 6,000 hotel rooms in Queens in 2010. By the first quarter of 2017, the number of rooms had doubled to 12,000. This rapid growth, Sunwoo said, has, in some cases, negatively affected the character of certain neighborhoods.
“We’re concerned about balanced neighborhood growth,” Sunwoo explained. “Hotels tend to be out of context in many of these areas.”
One of the reasons that the proposed text amendment focuses only on M1 districts, Sunwoo said, is that the DCP wanted to avoid a large-scale disruption of the city’s booming tourism and hotel industries, while still allowing community boards a process to evaluate these developments.
According to the DCP, in 2005 there were 42.6 million visitors to the city. In 2017, the number of tourists increased to 62.8 million.
M1 districts are also uniquely suited for hotel development and have, in recent years, seen extensive growth in this area. Thirty percent of hotel rooms currently under construction citywide are in M1 districts, Sunwoo said. In Queens, 25 percent of all existing hotel rooms are located in M1 districts.
An M1 district is a manufacturing district that is zoned for light industrial use. Repair shops, wholesale services, offices, retail facilities and storage facilities are also often found in these districts. M1 districts act as buffers between M2 and M3 districts—intermediate and heavy industrial zones—and neighboring residential and commercial areas.
Sunwoo said that the rules regulating development in M1 districts have barely changed since the 1960s.
The DCP’s proposed text amendment would extend to all M1 districts citywide, except for those directly surrounding LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports. If enacted, the amendment would require all hotels in M1 districts to acquire a special permit—a prerequisite of which would be the approval of the local community board. Sunwoo said that the expected time frame of approval for the special permit would be two years.
Many community board chairs and City Council members at Monday’s meeting believed that the proposal did not go far enough to regulate hotel development.
“You have excluded a large portion of Long Island City from this action,” Van Bramer told Sunwoo. “We already have a bazillion hotels.”
Sunwoo responded that much of Long Island City is zoned for commercial use and thus exempt from the current action, which applies strictly to M1 districts.
“Not surprisingly, you have made a big mistake here,” Van Bramer continued. “The administration fails to understand western Queens and what the community wants.”
Adams voiced her doubts about the veracity of the notion that the amendment would allow community boards a powerful voice in the process of hotel developments.
“My concern is that this proposal is going to be another piece of feel-good information for the community boards,” Adams said. “There’s a lot of distrust on this issue. I don’t think it goes far enough to restore our confidence in City Planning and DHS.”
Adams’ statement referenced the ongoing issue of hotels’ being used as homeless shelters, an unwelcome development in many Queens neighborhoods in recent years. Some community board chairs at the meeting suggested that the text amendment include restrictions on any hotels that plan to operate as a homeless shelter.
“Yes, it feels good,” Adams said, “but I agree with all the chairs that say this needs to be extended.”
In the coming weeks, DCP officials will meet with Queens community boards to further discuss the proposed amendment. The Queens Borough Board will vote on the amendment on June 11, but Queens Borough President Melinda Katz suggested on Monday that the voting date could be postponed a few weeks.
“Right now, hotels can go into M1 districts without any public scrutiny,” Katz said at the close of Monday’s meeting. “I think this is better than nothing.”