September 16 2020

Community groups march against Flushing waterfront project

by Benjamin Fang
Sept. 16, 2020

Days before the City Planning Commission (CPC) held a hearing on the proposed Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD), community groups against the project marched through Flushing to voice opposition and express concerns about the development.

On Saturday, dozens of residents, advocates and critics of the Flushing waterfront project rallied in front of Flushing Library before marching to Councilman Peter Koo’s district office a few blocks away.

They demanded that Koo reject the plan to develop 1,725 units, including 90 affordable apartments, as well as retail, hotels, office space and other amenities, on 29 acres of private waterfront property.

“We truly do not need luxury condos. Luxury development will drive up the rent,” said Seonae Byeon, lead housing organizer for the Minkwon Center for Community Action. “Our low-income, immigrant tenants will be priced out.”

At the rally, Assemblyman Ron Kim also called on Koo to oppose the project.

“We own Flushing, not the developers, not the property owners,” Kim said. “The people who put their blood, sweat and tears into the neighborhood.”

Earlier this year, Community Board 7 voted 30-8 to support the proposal. Acting Borough President Sharon Lee, however, recommended against the rezoning.

After the Uniformed Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CPC restarted the process with a virtual hearing on September 16. If the agency certifies the project, the SFWD will go to the City Council for a vote.

William Spisak, director of housing justice at Chhaya Community Development Corporation (CDC), said it was “ridiculous” that ULURP has restarted, given the ongoing pandemic.

He noted that many community members who don’t feel comfortable using technology or don’t know how to navigate the online portal won’t be able to give their input on the rezoning.

“We think the CPC has already given the green light to the project without an environmental impact statement,” he said. “We don’t anticipate that they’re going to be particularly critical of this.”

Chhaya, Minkwon, Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce and Robert LoScalzo, a local historian and filmmaker, have filed an Article 78 proceeding to challenge the CPC’s decision to end environmental review on December 16.

The plaintiffs argued in their lawsuit that the city made an error by not requiring an environmental impact statement on a project of this scale.

Spisak noted that the community groups had to delay the filing of the lawsuit because of COVID, but has now filed and served the city. In response, he said, the city is trying to get the lawsuit “thrown out.”

“We anticipate hopefully having our day in court in person,” he said. “We’d love to be there and bring the community, but if it’s not safe, then we obviously won’t be doing that.”

The rally and march focused heavily on Koo, who could play a critical role in killing the project by voting against it when it comes before the City Council for final approval. Spisak said the councilman has been “pretty coy” about how he will vote.

Critics of the development have noted that in 2016, Koo came out against the city’s proposed Flushing West rezoning because it was like “stuffing 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound bag.” But Spisak said this version of the waterfront project is similar in nature to the former proposal.

“If Peter Koo is true to his word and and true to those principles, he should come around and realize that this is the same thing,” he said. “Listen to Peter Koo from 2016 and realize it’s the same problem.”

Spisak, who noted that Koo will be forced out of office next year due to term limits, said if he votes in favor of the project his legacy will “essentially be the destruction of Flushing.”

“If he ever wants to do anything in the community again, he’s going to need community support, one way or another,” he said. “We’re not going to forget this.”

If Koo does end up supporting the SFWD, Spisak said the goal of the Article 78 proceeding is to require a full environmental review, which could delay the project further. If that is the case, he said, it may be the next City Council representative, not Koo, who will play a critical role in the project.

“We’ll stay open to communicating with whoever that person is,” Spisak said.

In a statement, FWRA LLC, the consortium of three developers behind the project, said Minkwon and other groups were disseminating “misleading information.”

“While attempts have been made to drown out the merits of this project by a small group of loud, misguided voices who repeatedly claim we are trying to privatize what is already private land, the Special Flushing Waterfront District developers are busy working to ensure that our community moves forward, not backwards,” the developers said.

“In the end, it’s the hard-working people of Flushing that will be affected most if new jobs and significant tax revenues that fund civic works and programs are not created,” they added. “We stand with the community at large and for restarting an economy that continues to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Read more: Queens Examiner - Community groups march against Flushing waterfront project