Rendering courtesy of Studio V Architecture.
BY JACKIE STRAWBRIDGE
Bumpy asphalt, chipped brick and boarded windows line the streets to the waterfront. Through a gated construction site, beyond piles of metal on one side and a school bus depot on the other, the East River laps the shore and the Triborough Bridge rears. NY
CHA’s Astoria Houses lie a block south; a planned residential and commercial megaproject site lies to the west at Hallets Point.
This is Pot Cove, also known as Astoria Cove, an industrial nook of the Borough that has become the stage for New York’s questions and insecurities about the future of development under a new, progressive administration to play out. This is where 2030 Astoria Developers, with Alma Realty as lead investors, want a zoning change to permit construction of 1,700 apartments, a public esplanade, 900 parking spots and space for a public school.
If approved, the development would bring in wealthy tenants, restaurants, retail and greenspace, transforming the neighborhood. Now, the City is contemplating: for better or worse?
In a conversation last week at the Queens Tribune offices, Alma Realty partner John Mavroudis cited some of the project’s features that he believes will be overwhelmingly beneficial to the neighborhood.
He noted that the proposed development would open two new streets and public access to the Astoria Cove waterfront, create a co-operative supermarket and bring upgrades to nearby Whitey Ford field.
Design plans for Astoria Cove also include space for a public elementary school, while land has been earmarked for a ferry dock that would service potential water transportation between Western Queens, Roosevelt Island and Manhattan.
Through conversations with local stakeholders, Mavroudis said, developers have identified amenities and community spaces that the neighborhood lacks. The goal, he continued, is to transform “an area that is now isolated, that is now cut off and removed.”
That transformation and the upgrades that come with it, he said, will benefit not only the new residents who move to the proposed Astoria Cove apartments, but will also give options for services to the other housing developments near Astoria Cove, including Astoria Houses.
The 22-building NYCHA complex situated to the south of Astoria Cove is home to 3,000 people. Due to a dearth of transportation and amenities in the area, many struggle to find the services they need. Astoria Cove would change that, the developer said.
Mavroudis added, “I think our project, again, in a vacuum is a good project.”
‘A Symbol of Development’
Of course, Astoria Cove is not operating in a vacuum. The development environment that 2030 Astoria Developers have entered with this project is in fact busy with various stakeholders, and it has drawn towards it like a magnet the diverse desires and philosophies of these parties.
“In terms of Alma and Astoria Cove, it is in some ways becoming a symbol of development,” Lenore Friedlander, executive director of the labor advocacy group Build Up NYC, said. “Should development be just about the profit of private developers, or how much do [they] have to give back?”
Build Up NYC has been leading the charge for developers to guarantee union jobs in the construction of Astoria Cove, while also vocal in the call for increased affordable housing and an environmental impact study at the site before shovels hit the ground.
“[We’re trying to] establish the new normal,” Jessica Ramos, Build Up NYC communications director, added.
This “new normal” would be a city where a local, unionized workforce in construction is taken for granted and used as a springboard to sustainable careers, and therefore to the middle class. The job training, on-site safety, pathways into other jobs and even the camaraderie of union work would have long term implications for the area, according to Friedlander.
“[Developers should] take the high road, be responsible, help to get the economy on track by creating good jobs, and let’s try to spiral up,” she said.
Ultimately, Build Up NYC is pushing for an agreement from the developers to hire local and unionized workers for the construction of Astoria Cove.
Although developers have consistently stated their desire to create sustainable, local jobs, no written guarantee yet exists. As noted at an October City Council public hearing, Alma has sent letters of intent to the trade unions, but no agreement has been signed. In his interview with the Tribune, Mavroudis noted that negotiations were still ongoing.
Both parties resisted speaking in detail about those discussions.
“There may be semantics that are getting in the way,” Mavroudis said.
However, Friedlander said that “those letters don’t reflect a comprehensive commitment to create good jobs for all the classifications of workers.”
In keeping with Alma’s traditionally under-the-radar, minimally conspicuous nature, Mavroudis consistently resisted suggestions that labor decisions at Astoria Cove will set precedents in the City.
“There are certainly deals in Queens very close to us that have deals already with those unions, and there are other developers who have no deals. So I don’t think it’s going to be unique to us,” he said.
‘Political Issues At Play’
Since the project’s early stages of its Uniform Land Use Review Procedure application, affordable housing has dominated debate. Community Board 1, Borough President Melinda Katz and Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) all issued their disapproval of the project based largely on an insufficiency of affordable housing.
The board specifically called for 35 as opposed to the proposed 20 percent of the project to be set aside for affordable housing, a decision that drew cheers and applause from a room packed wall to wall with attendees, many from Build Up NYC.
When asked whether he believes Astoria Cove’s benefits are being overshadowed by the push for more affordable housing, Mavroudis said, “I do and I think that’s unfortunate.”
“Obviously there are some political issues at play here in terms of the affordable housing,” Mavroudis went on.
For local elected officials, the Astoria Cove debate boils down to a give-and-take. In conversations with the Tribune, both Katz and Constantinides have said that developers who come to the City hoping to benefit financially from a zoning change are being asked to provide affordable housing in return.
Joe Chiappetti, an Astoria resident and lifetime union laborer who participated in the Queens Tribune’s conversation with Build Up NYC, framed the issue in moral terms. If developers get the opportunity to build in the City, he said, they should “just by decency” make their apartments affordable and offer good jobs in the construction of them.
2030 Astoria Developers seem to view their project from a couple of different angles. On one hand, the developers have for months touted their decision to require affordable housing in the zoning text – making their project the first to participate in mandatory inclusionary housing, the crux of de Blasio’s plan to add 200,000 units of affordable housing in 10 years.
On the other hand, Mavroudis himself denied that the project was built to usher in a new era of affordable housing.
“I don’t think that was our intention,” Mavroudis said. “I think it’s becoming that way by default.”
He added, “I don’t think it’s the developer’s responsibility [to create affordable housing,]” although noting that he believes there is a balance to be achieved in building projects that benefit both the community and the developers.
One of the ways Mavroudis said they achieve this balance is by not requesting public subsidies from the City, which is typical for Alma Realty.
“It’s just not our thing,” he said.
Specific to Astoria Cove, he added, “we tried to create a project here that doesn’t increase burden on the City but rather, let us do our own thing, and we’ll create the best thing we can.”
He did not rule out the possibility of turning to public subsidies, but said negotiations have not reached this point as of yet.
The Vote Approaches
Developers have only a few more weeks of these negotiations left before the City Council will issue its final vote in late November. Mavroudis was cautious in predicting an outcome, saying he is “hopeful” that an agreement will be reached.
“Really, this is a question of the developer and what the responsibility of the developer is,” Friedlander said.
“If the developer is willing to work with all the stakeholders in a fair way and in a responsible way, we will stand up and advocate for this project. We are not at that point yet,” she added.
The view from Astoria Cove’s cluttered shoreline is of bridges – the Triborough Bridge stretching to Manhattan and the Bronx and the Hell Gate Bridge stepping to Wards Island. A bridge to City history sits next door; Shore Towers, a squat condominium, itself brought both controversy and optimism to the area when it was built more than two decades ago. The sense among development stakeholders that Astoria Cove could build a new bridge to a transformed neighborhood, even a transformed City, is overwhelming.
For now, Astoria watches and waits.
Reach Jackie Strawbridge at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JNStrawbridge.