Flushing Council Candidates Split on Contentious Waterfront Development
By Christine Chung
on November 19, 2020 4:30 am
A contentious Flushing waterfront project is upending the usual City Council politics around approvals — and dividing candidates running to replace Councilmember Peter Koo, a fan of the hotel and apartment development.
A consortium of three developers, F&T Group, United Construction & Development Group, and Young Nian Group, is seeking permission to create the Special Flushing Waterfront District, underpinning a 13-tower complex that would transform the east shore of Flushing Creek.
The consortium, operating as FWRA LLC, aims to construct 879 hotel rooms and 1,725 residential apartments on three privately owned sites by 2025. Some 90 of the apartments in the 29-acre development would be earmarked for affordable housing.
On Tuesday afternoon, dueling sides of the fight made their voices heard on 39th Avenue in Flushing.
Opponents yelled, “Peter Koo, shame on you” and waved signs depicting the Democrat’s eyes.
Outside the Queens Crossing shopping center, a project developed by F&T Group, dozens of people backing Koo held signs in Chinese and English, and shouted chants of support.
Many construction workers who are employed at F&T Group’s partially complete Tangram South condominium were in the mix, and walked in lockstep back to the construction site after the rally.
On the other side of the street, a cluster of community members and staff from Minkwon Center, a community organizing group working with low-income Korean and other area Asian residents, protested the development.
Minkwon, Chhaya CDC and the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit in June pressing for a full environmental impact statement for the project.
The groups maintain the creation and development of the waterfront district will drive up rents further and displace residents in a neighborhood where more than half of people are already rent-burdened.
Development of the former industrial area would be allowed under existing land use rules. But the plan currently under review by the City Council aims to tweak design details that include opening up streets within the area and new waterfront access.
A lot to the north, accounting for about 10% of the property, requires rezoning, a FWRA LLC spokesperson said.
Pushing Back on Developers
Protesters opposing the project were joined by candidates for City Council elsewhere in Queens, including former Queens District Attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán — and one soon-to-be candidate, John Choe.
Choe, head of the Greater Flushing Greater Chamber of Commerce, is launching his campaign for City Council Thursday. He joins a growing field looking to replace Koo, who will be term limited next year.
Choe, 50, told THE CITY that he plans to run an “insurgent campaign in opposition to the development community.” If elected, he said, he’ll propose policies to “return power to the working families and small business owners who are the core of our community.”
Choe spotlights the Flushing Creek project as emblematic of a larger power imbalance citywide.
“Through their deep pockets, developers control every facet of public policy in NYC,” he said. “It’s time to remove their tentacles from our democracy — whether it’s railroading luxury developments like [the Special Flushing Waterfront District], squashing transportation improvements like the Flushing busway and protected bike lanes, or reforming our police force.”
Also running for the Council and opposing the project is Hailing Chen, an Uber driver who hopes to implement more robust protections for immigrant workers and gig economy employees.
Another candidate in the race, Neng Wang, the former director of the Chinese‐American Planning Council’s Nan Shan Senior Center in Flushing, told THE CITY that he’d vote yes on the rezoning, if he could.
Wang is campaigning on a law-and-order platform, also promising to boost education resources for the district.
“It will increase thousands of permanent jobs,” Wang said. “I believe it is good for the economic recovery.”
Candidate Sandra Ung, an attorney and special assistant to Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens), said that she’s yet to make a decision on the project.
A Council subcommittee postponed a vote on the project scheduled for Wednesday because negotiations are ongoing, including with labor unions, Council Member Fransciso Moya (D-Queens) told THE CITY.
Moya, who chairs the subcommittee, said the proposal doesn’t yet have enough support to pass the subcommittee.
Koo has suggested he backs the project, saying it has “many merits.”
Council members typically would defer to the preference of Koo as the local representative. But many on and off the committee are making an exception.
On Tuesday night, Moya issued a statement signed by 11 other members stating their opposition.
“Approving this rezoning as it currently stands would be a grave mistake,” the statement said, adding that the project “ignores the real, urgent needs of the Flushing community.”
Councilmember and Queens Borough President-elect Donovan Richards (D-Queens), who sits on the subcommittee, said that housing affordability is key.
“In the midst of a pandemic ensuring there is upward mobility for people in communities like Flushing is a must, there shouldn’t even be a debate,” he said.
Richards added he will vote no unless the developers reach an agreement on labor standards.
The full 51-member Council will ultimately vote on the project, no later than 50 days after the City Planning Commission’s Nov. 4 vote, 11-to-2, in favor of the developer’s map changes. The proposal will then head to Mayor Bill de Blasio for final review.
The developers have committed to environmental remediation of the creek, improvements to sewer and storm water drainage systems, as well as to creating 124,000 square feet of publicly accessible streets and sidewalks, and a waterfront pedestrian path.
They anticipate the project will generate 2,926 permanent jobs and nearly $165 million in annual tax revenue. Representatives for the developers have repeatedly emphasized that the public amenities will not materialize if the rezoning is unsuccessful, and that the bulk of the project can move forwards without the city’s approval.
They’ve applied for a zoning text amendment and map change that would create the waterfront district and switch the zoning from heavy industrial use to allow light industrial uses and for 14-story buildings to be constructed.
In a statement released Tuesday following the demonstrations, the developers said their project “aims to support small businesses and it seems the opposition is determined to rob Flushing of that opportunity.”
“Those who oppose the Special Flushing Waterfront District claim to want to see Flushing thrive,” the statement said. “However, they have no plan or means to bring Flushing the jobs, affordable housing and public space they want.”