June 11 2020

Coalition sues city over waterfront plan

by Katherine Donlevy, Associate Editor



Flushing activists, organizations and residents have filed a lawsuit against the Department of City Planning in the latest effort to halt the development of the Special Flushing Waterfront District, a plan they believe would be detrimental to the community.

“This lawsuit primarily challenges the Special Flushing Waterfront District,” said Dan Hong, the communications director of MinKwon Center for Community Action at a June 9 press conference. “This [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] process has been highly unusual from the start. It has been railroaded by developer interests and the city.”

The suit was filed by TakeRoot Justice, a nonprofit legal services provider that supports grassroots groups, on behalf of MinKwon, the Chhaya Community Development Corporation and the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, organizations which also make up the Flushing for Equitable Development and Urban Planning coalition, as well as local activist Robert LoScalzo. The suit alleges that the DCP allowed the private developers, FWRA LLC, to proceed through the ULURP process without conducting an environmental impact statement.

An EIS, required for any change in land use law, evaluates how the rezoning would impact the environment, infrastructure, local economy and social conditions. Because the DCP did not conduct one, the coalition argues that agencies in the ULURP process, such as the City Council, which is slated to vote on the proposal next, cannot make an informed decision.

The SFWD proposal to rezone and redevelop the 29-acre stretch of waterfront industrial property and surrounding land in Downtown Flushing seeks to extend the district to the waterfront, improve pedestrian flow and vehicular movement, add affordable housing and improve the water quality of Flushing Creek. The project would lie between 40th Road to the south, College Point Boulevard to the east, 36th Avenue to the north and Flushing Creek to the west.

The coalition raised concerns about the lack of affordable housing in the plan, gentrification of the neighborhood and displacement of diverse families who have inhabited the area for generations. They also raised concerns over increased traffic, congestion and public transit ridership, as well as overcrowding of already strained schools.

“It is baffling why, at a time of unprecedented economic crisis, the Mayor’s agencies would facilitate the SFWD proposal and displace many of our local residents and small business owners,” said John Choe, executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce. “Our community has been devastated, not only from the current pandemic, but from decades of disinvestment, traffic congestion, and privatization of public land. While our small businesses struggle to reopen because they lack resources, the City is meeting behind closed doors to bend the rules to help for-profit developers build a gated community with private roads and waterfront access.”

The coalition also voiced concerns over the environmental impact of the plan. The site rests along a former coal ash dump in a 100-year flood plain and next to sewer pipes that release over a billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater every year, according to Rebecca Pryor, the program coordinator at Guardians of Flushing Bay.

Community Board 7 supported the proposal, giving it a positive advisory vote before sending it to acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee, who voted against the plan for the same reasons included in the lawsuit. The application was set to appear before the City Council in February, but the pandemic put all ULURP processes on hold.

MinKwon Executive Director John Park noted that the activist organization conducted a 2015 survey of over 300 Flushing residents and found that 74 percent were concerned with lack of affordable housing and 28 percent were concerned about the displacement of their neighbors. The SFWD reserved 61 of its 1,725 units for affordable housing, which FEDUP priced at 80 percent of Flushing’s area median income.

“This development is not centered on the interests and concerns of the neighborhood,” Park said.

Furthermore, the coalition warns that the waterfront esplanade included in the SFWD proposal will not truly be public as advertised, but would be private property. Instead, the group suggested a public esplanade managed by the Parks Department.

The coalition called on Councilmember Peter Koo (D-Flushing) to denounce the proposal — Park said that Koo vowed in 2016 that he would not support any development unless it included affordable housing priced for those making 40 percent of the area median income.

Assemblymember Ron Kim (D-Flushing) attended the press conference to voice his opposition to the proposal, stating, “For far too long, external stakeholders have come into places like Flushing to only see our neighborhood with an extractive lens. They are not concerned about creating real value for our communities like affordable housing, schools, libraries, but only extracting as much profits out of us.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx, Queens) also shared opposition to the SFWD, despite the area not being in her district.

FWRA LLC. could not be reached for comment by press time.