BY LYNN EDMONDS
The entire Flushing West project is scrapped for the time being, the NYC Department of City Planning confirmed on Wednesday.
The plan would have likely brought over 1,000 new housing units to the area of Downtown Flushing east of Flushing Creek, bounded by Northern Boulevard to the north, Roosevelt Avenue to the South and Prince Street to the east.
The impetus to indefinitely postpone the plan came from a letter from Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) to the DCP on Friday. While the councilman had submitted criticisms of the plans throughout the extensive planning period, a firm letter asking the DCP to withdraw the plans changed the entire dynamic from one of negotiation to a blunt decision.
Director of the DCP Carl Weisbrod wrote back to Koo the same day letting him know that “we agree that it would not be prudent to move forward,” and that “we will turn out attention and our priority to planning efforts in other neighborhoods.”
Koo said adding more residences to western Flushing was not appropriate when downtown Flushing was already struggling with so many infrastructure challenges.
“Concerns arose about the sustainability of nearly every major category in the urban planning spectrum –affordable housing, public transportation, traffic, school capacity, small business and residential displacement, and environmental remediation,” Koo wrote in the letter.
The councilman listed several priorities that he wanted to see addressed before the rezoning took place.
• Address environmental concerns, including air quality, noise and the need to remediate the Flushing Creek where new residences would reside.
• Revert to the pre-2012 LGA flight path over Flushing Meadows Corona Park instead of downtown Flushing.
• Develop a comprehensive affordable housing plan for all levels of income.
• Create new school capacity.
• Address streetscape infrastructure, road repair, bus terminals, 7 train capacity.
The Flushing West rezoning was part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s larger plan to rezone 15 neighborhoods in accordance with Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning For Quality and Affordability, his legacy legislation aimed at creating affordable housing. Elements of the plan included setting aside 10-30 percent of units to be permanently affordable to individuals making as little as 40 and up to 115 percent or more of the City’s AMI.
Development plans for Flushing West were initiated by the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation, which secured a $1.5 million Brownfield Opportunity Area grant to study and improve the neighborhood.
The group said they were disappointed but would continue working on their Brownfield Area Opportunity grant even if the rezoning would no longer be going forward.
“I have always understood the complexity of this project and hope that the legitimate concerns raised by Council Member Koo can be addressed on behalf of the greater Flushing community,” President and CEO of the Flushing Willets Point Corona LDC Claire Shulman said.
Community organizations in Flushing, including Community Board 7 and the Flushing Rezoning Community Alliance, had been pushing strongly for changes to the rezoning plan.
For the rezoning alliance, much of that concern was around the affordability of planned housing. At a town hall in March, the group pressured Koo to vote against the Mayor’s affordable housing plan if it was not amended to include higher levels of affordable housing – which is was.
Yet the group seemed slightly taken aback when they found out Flushing West had been indefinitely postponed.
“We are a little bit surprised about the recent development,” Jubum Cha, Communications Director for the MinKwon Center, a member organization of the alliance, said. “We cannot say we agree or oppose [Koo’s decision] yet as we are currently in discussion about the matter, but we just want to keep our principles, which is transparency and a community voice,” he said.
The Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, released a statement saying they were disappointed with the change of plans.
“We are disappointed that the plug was pulled on the ambitious Flushing West rezoning, particularly because of how engaged our community was with shaping our future,” the group’s president, Simon Gerson, said. “This unfortunate decision shows that the City never really made an effort to understand who we are.”
But Councilman Peter Koo’s office said that they’d been engaged in back and forth with the DCP for months, as well as with the community, and that the decision had been the result of careful thought and feedback.
Joe Sweeney, Chairman of CB 7’s Land Use Committee on Flushing West, said he “fully concurred with the Councilman’s decision to request the plan be called off. Immersing himself in the details of the plan, Sweeney said he became increasingly concerned about its sustainability.
“I felt that it started crumbling once I started investigating it,” he said. “I have been on the Community Board for 30 years, I’ve seen Flushing grow, and I didn’t want to see it fall apart.”
Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing) and State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) were also among those who voiced opposition to the rezoning, holding a press conference on the issue in March.
Two of the biggest concerns for the DCP were issues that made Flushing West unique as compared to the 15 other sites that are being considered for rezoning: Flushing Creek, and the height restrictions due to the proximity developments’ proximity to LaGuardia Airport.
Pollution in Flushing Creek, largely a result of Combined Sewer Overflows – which consist of raw sewage and runoff from roads – smells bad and could make the waterfront an unpleasant place to live. Aside from that, creating additional housing in the area without improving sewer infrastructure – which there were no plans to do – would only contribute to the problem.
Another problem from the DCP’s perspective, as well as from developers, were height restrictions. In April, developers from F&T Group and Triple Star Realty came before CB 7 in a Land Use Committee meeting, and told board members that banks had questioned the economic feasibility of their plan, declining to give them mortgages to build in the area. In order to offset the costs of subsidizing affordable housing, other developers have traditionally had the option of building up, or building down, to allow for more market rate units. But that wasn’t an option due to nearby LaGuardia Airport and the high water table squeezing developers in both directions. The suspension of the 421-a tax break was another setback for developers that further complicated the economic feasibility of the plan.
The Department of City Planning and Koo both said they would be open to revisiting the plan if the infrastructure needs could be adequately addressed.
“Even though we are pausing the rezoning process, we will continue to invest in Flushing’s revitalization in numerous ways, and our aggressive efforts to build and preserve affordable housing will continue in the neighborhood,” Austin Finan, a spokesperson for the Mayor, said.
“What’s the rush? Let’s do this right.” Sweeney added. “Let’s let the dust settle.”
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana