Community Groups Challenge Luxury Flushing Development in Court
By Lewis Latimer, Patch Mayor
New York, NY—A coalition of organizations and individuals representing the diverse community of Flushing filed a lawsuit against the City Planning Commission and Department of City Planning (DCP) both under the control of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an effort to stop the rezoning and development of the Flushing Creek Waterfront. The groups filing suit are Chhaya Community Development Corporation, MinKwon Center for Community Action and the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce. They are joined by local activist Robert Loscalzo. Their lawsuit alleges that the mayoral agencies are allowing private developers, FWRA LLC, to avoid the required environmental review process. As a result, the developers’ application for a change in the law is deceiving about the potential impacts of the change they seek. Community members and the City Council will not be able to know about the real potential size and scale of waterfront development that the change in the law would permit before the application comes to the City Council for a vote. By curtailing environmental review, the administration is keeping the Council in the dark.
FWRA LLC’s development plan, the Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD) proposal, would transform the area of Downtown Flushing with 36th Avenue to the north, College Point Boulevard to the east, Roosevelt Avenue to the south, and Flushing Creek to the west. The developers are seeking to add over 1,700 new luxury condos, two new hotels, and high-end retail establishments to the already overcrowded neighborhood of downtown Flushing.
The suit was filed on behalf of the groups by TakeRoot Justice, a non-profit legal services provider that supports grassroots groups. It describes the slight-of-hand that the City Planning Commission used to incorrectly certify the developers’ application to start the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) without an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). An EIS is needed any time that a change in land use law has a potentially significant impact on the environment, including the people that live in a neighborhood. The process of producing an EIS includes a rigorous evaluation of how the rezoning would impact the environment, infrastructure, the local economy, and social conditions, as well as a discussion of alternatives and mitigations. When an EIS is produced, the agencies hold a hearing on its initial scope of review and another to gather public comments on the draft. By declaring the application complete without an EIS, the mayoral agencies have foreclosed all discussion of alternatives, mitigations and public feedback on the environmental evaluation.
“This is simply unlawfulness by this Mayor’s administration. By cutting environmental review short, his DCP is foreclosing the possibility of an honest public reckoning with the potential impacts of the rezoning, and keeping the City Council in the dark,” said TakeRoot Justice senior staff attorney Paula Segal. “The Council cannot vote to approve without having access to an honest statement describing potential impacts of the land use law changes these private developers are asking the City to make. We are asking the court to issue an order directing the agencies to create an EIS.”
The organizations participating in the lawsuit are also members of a coalition called the Flushing for Equitable Development and Urban Planning (FED UP). The coalition opposes SFWD by objecting to the lack of affordable housing in the plan that they say will contribute to the ongoing gentrification and displacement of low-income, working-class immigrants and families in Flushing. Only 61 of the proposed 1,725 units are currently reserved for affordable housing, priced at income levels that are greatly above the actual median income of Flushing, FED UP says. The group warns that the waterfront esplanade will not truly be public, but will remain private property and lack the same access and amenities that a public esplanade managed by the Parks Department would include. They also raise issues with increased traffic, congestion, and ridership of public transit, with one example being the intersection of Janet Place and Roosevelt Ave.: the Environmental Assessment states that it would take drivers an average of 44 minutes to make a turn at that intersection due to projected traffic conditions. All of these issues continue to go unaddressed by the City and developers.
"We unequivocally challenge the City's decision to green light the SFWD proposal, which grossly miscalculated the detrimental impact this proposal will have on community members and surrounding neighborhoods. Chhaya CDC knows how massive luxury developments accelerate gentrification and displacement. It is time for the needs of the community to be placed above the desires of developers who did not conduct a proper EIS, nor seek community input in the planning process," said Annetta Seechharran, Executive Director of Chhaya CDC.
"In 2015, we directly engaged with the Flushing community, held town halls, and created a survey of over 300 local residents and stakeholders, and published a white paper based on the community recommendations. The top concern of local residents, at 74%, was lack of affordable housing, with 28% concerned for neighbors being displaced at that time. In 2016, NYC Council Member Peter Koo vowed publicly to not support any development unless it included affordable housing priced at 40% AMI (area median income), yet the affordable housing in the current SFWD proposal is priced at 80% AMI — twice the median income of Flushing residents! This development is not centered on the interests and concerns of the neighborhood, evidenced by past community-led research and statements by elected officials, and the overwhelming number of people testifying against SFWD before CB7 and Queens Borough President Sharon Lee at their public hearings," said John Park, Executive Director at the MinKwon Center.
"There has been a gross lack of transparency throughout the entire ULURP process, where community members have been deliberately kept in the dark," said Seonae Byeon, Lead Housing Organizer at the MinKwon Center. "One of the primary initiatives of the ULURP process is to account for community input and opinion but the community cannot give its input if the developers do not present an honest accounting of the proposed changes. Due to lack of transparency, the burden ultimately fell on the community themselves to seek out information about how what is allowed to be built now differs from what would be allowed under the new rules, to voice their concerns, and to remind developers and Community Board 7 of their obligations to the community.
"Prior to COVID-19, our community members came to the public hearings, repeatedly stating that the rent was too high and that they were often forced to choose between paying rent and buying food. When New York began its PAUSE Order in response to COVID, many residents who had cash and tipped jobs were laid off and could no longer afford food and household goods. An overwhelming number of people line up at the local food pantry for hours every day, knowing that some will be turned away. All these struggles that our communities are enduring are long-time consequences of real estate speculation and environmental racism."
“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. Our lawsuit puts the Mayor and the City Council on notice that our community will no longer tolerate the rubber-stamping of yet another corporate giveaway. We demand and deserve a comprehensive environmental review and implore the Council to plan to vote against the requested change."
“Requiring no Environmental Impact Statement means that there were no public hearings or any other opportunities for the public to formally participate in determining the scope of environmental analysis for this project,” said Petitioner Robert LoScalzo. “In deciding to proceed in this exclusionary way, DCP deliberately ignored the impacts of an entire 20-story building that the rezoning will allow, while assuming a ‘baseline’ amount of development inconsistent with the Department’s own analysis of just a few years ago. This proposed rezoning will load more passengers onto the already-stressed number 7 subway line and further congest Flushing’s vehicular traffic – and it will do so, above and beyond similar impacts due to the nearby Willets Point development and the LaGuardia AirPort AirTrain. The public will have to live with the long-term consequences of all this development in close quarters, and City Planning should have ensured public participation in scoping the environmental analysis, instead of shamefully bending over backwards to avoid it. Our recourse now is the courts.”
"The lawsuit highlights DCP’s negligence in planning and making informed land use recommendations that promote the public interests of Flushing, and outlines how mayoral agencies colluded in using public funds (in this case, a $1.5 million planning grant) for real estate speculation and the advancing the interests of private property owners and transnational developers. DCP’s negative declaration on FRWA LLC’s EAS to push through a complicated rezoning without engaged public review is reprehensible. Our current, unprecedented public health and social crisis underscores the imperative to address systemic injustice, which includes challenging city planning decisions and actions like this proposal that will reproduce class and race segregation and inequality," said Tarry Hum PhD, Professor and Chair at the Urban Studies Department at Queens College CUNY.
“We wholeheartedly oppose the proposed rezoning of Flushing and support the petitioners in the lawsuit against the City Planning Commission of NYC. Our community has been inundated with luxury development, the second most in NYC after Williamsburg in the last decade. For our members, this has meant working longer hours or second jobs to keep up with skyrocketing rents, worsening living conditions, and fear that jobs will be lost when leases end and their employers cannot keep up with the rising rents. We say no more luxury development that will drive up our rents even more. We call on NYC Council Member Koo to stand with the residents and small businesses owners in our community and firmly oppose the SFWD rezoning,” said Sarah Ahn of the Flushing Workers Center.
“The increasing unaffordability of Flushing over the past few years has made living and working conditions more difficult, forcing some immigrant workers to take on more risky jobs to survive, or move to new locations where they have less access to community networks," said Esther K. of Red Canary Song. This waterfront development would make rent even less affordable to the majority of immigrants currently living in the community who make less than $30,000 per year.
The increase in police presence that accompanies luxury developments also endangers Flushing immigrant workers who are racially targeted by police, including street vendors, bicycle delivery workers, and Asian massage parlor workers who are profiled as sex workers. Lacking the language skills to fight off exorbitant fines, they are repeatedly targeted by police who use these fines to fill their coffers. Increased policing has already been deadly for some community members, including Yang Song, an immigrant sex worker who was killed during a police raid on her workplace. In the interest of providing real safety for our immigrant communities, we stand in solidarity with FED UP to oppose Flushing rezoning. Real safety does not come from policing, it comes from providing people with affordable housing, jobs, and healthcare, and a community built for and in consultation with the people who live there."
“Now, more than ever, the low income Flushing residents face unimaginable challenges to achieving environmental justice," said Rebecca Pryor, Program Coordinator at Guardians of Flushing Bay. "For decades, equitable access to resources, resilience, and environmental quality have already not been prioritized in downtown Flushing. The site for the proposed SFWD is 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. This is not the time nor the place to introduce a large-scale waterfront project with a minuscule number of affordable housing units, zero access to the water and an ill conceived privately owned waterfront esplanade without a robust and meaningful environmental review. This is the time to prioritize Flushing communities who, like our waterway, have been overlooked and neglected by the City for generations."
"I am proud to stand in solidarity with the FED UP coalition. Flushing’s vibrant community has too long been choked by dishonest and corrupt development. We cannot allow the government to work hand in glove with corporate interests, leaving the stakeholders in the community behind. The community demands meaningful public participation and review, and the departments in charge would do well to heed their call," said Melquiades Gagarin, community activist.
Elected officials have also commented:
"I stand with community and housing advocates calling for a thorough planning process for the Flushing Waterfront. We cannot allow luxury housing developers to skirt long standing review processes, particularly as New York braces for an unprecedented sea level rise. An environmental review process is essential for ALL proposed projects in our community," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
"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. Community members have every right to be skeptical and frustrated with developers, especially when New York passed progressive environmental legislation that sets audacious goals for new developments. I am working on a bill to close loopholes for developers by requiring any rezoning proposal that is around a public transportation hub (like the SFWD proposal) to complete a full EIS and receive approval by the NY Department of Transportation and the MTA," said NY Assembly Member Ron Kim.