Flushing Waterfront Rezoning Plan Moves to City Council Vote, Despite Local Dissent
Author Sadef Ali Kully
Date November 11, 2020
The entire City Council is due to vote on the private rezoning application for the Queens project, which would create a 29-acre waterfront special district with nine new buildings, including 1,725 apartments and other facilities.
City Councilmembers cross-questioned the Flushing Waterfront rezoning applicants Monday for details on affordable housing, open space, environmental impact and job opportunities related to the development project, which also faces a pending lawsuit in Queens Supreme Civil Court.
The entire City Council is due to vote on the private rezoning application for the Queens project, which would create a 29-acre waterfront special district with nine new buildings, including 1,725 apartments and other facilities. By tradition, the Council usually follows the vote of the councilmember in whose district a project falls, a practice known as member deference. The Flushing project is in the district represented by Councilmember Peter Koo, who is supportive of the rezoning plan despite opposition from local community groups.
“[The rezoning plan] shares the potential to transform an isolated and polluted brownfield into an active waterfront community with open space and promenade for the public,” Koo said during the City Council virtual hearing Monday, where he acknowledged the public criticism the proposal has received but added, “Our communities need affordable housing, we need jobs and economic recovery.”
“At the end, whatever is built will need to enhance the downtown Flushing community and open up access to the waterfront as best as possible,” he said.
The City Council has 50 days to consider the project. If the Council determines the application needs to be modified, it can go back to City Planning to deem if the change could occur without restarting the clock on the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP).
Demands for more affordable housing
After the applicants made their presentation on the plan at Monday’s hearing, Zoning and Franchise Subcommittee Chair and Councilmember Francisco Moya asked why there is no additional affordable housing slated for the project, which proposes creating 70 to 95 Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) units at one out of its four residential sites.
“The affordable housing element there, it’s not enough,” said Moya.
Ross Moskowitz, who represents the application and its developers, said the owners could build 1,500 housing units as-of-right without a rezoning (approval of the rezoning would increase that capacity by a little over 200 apartments.)
Moskowitz repeatedly said during the hearing that the plan should be looked at holistically for its contributions to the neighborhood.
“We think, taken in total, we are adding more than just affordable housing and we are doubling the size of the waterfront,” he said. “I think affordable housing is a fair point but we can’t look at it in isolation.”
Moya then asked how much profit the developers would be making from the project. Moskowitz said it was an unfair question, and that since there are three owners building three separate sites under the proposal, the economics for each would vary.
“I don’t think it’s unfair to ask given what you are proposing here. We are living right now in a city that has an incredibly high housing crisis right now, and as these big developments are coming in and we are seeing the low number of affordable units here, it’s only fair for me to ask, what is the company’s expected profits,” countered Moya, crossing his arms.
Moskowitz pointed out that the development could create 3,716 permanent jobs between its office, hotel and retail spaces. Moya asked if those jobs were dependent on who would use those spaces, considering the city faces a commercial rent crisis and decline of the retail market in the middle of a pandemic. Councilmember Carlina Rivera also asked if those jobs would include contracts going to women-owned or minority-owned businesses.
Moskowitz says they believe the market will rebound by the time the project is completed. One of the development sites, he noted, is already contracting with a women-led business, a priority goal for the rezoning project. He also highlighted the fact that the developers are local to Flushing, and so want to keep retail for local businesses rather than big box chains.
Developers expect to start construction as soon as the project is ULURP-approved, and expect to complete the project by 2025.
But not everyone was convinced of the proposal’s benefits.
“We are in a crisis in NY, over 70,000 people are living in shelters,” Brooklyn Councilmember Antonio Reynoso said. “As a Councilmember, I am supposed to look out for the best interest for the city of New York and at this point this project doesn’t seem to serve a purpose in assisting us in getting us out of the hole of affordable housing.”
The City Council hearing lasted for more than eight hours and included testimony from more than 100 supporters and opponents. It came after the City Planning Commission (CPC) voted in favor of the plan 11 to 2 last week. Commissioner Michelle De La Uz, who voted against the application, cited concerns about affordable housing, school and environmental impact, saying both are critical for communities which face a large development project.
“What is clear is that the area needs to be remediated and what is also clear, the proposal falls short of meeting the affordable housing and public school seats needed for the area,” she said during the CPC vote. “The 75 to 90 [Mandatory Inclusionary Housing units] is laughable considering the size of this project…this proposal can do more.”
De La Uz also recommended that City Planning play a stronger role in this private application. Commissioner Orlando Marin agreed with De La Uz’s comments and also voted against the rezoning application.
The rezoning alongside Flushing Creek
The Flushing rezoning plan would apply to an 11-block area east of Flushing Creek and west of Prince Street. The group behind the plan is FWRA LLC, a partnership of three private developers who own the majority of property along the waterfront. They want to create a 29-acre waterfront special district for nine buildings, including 1,725 new apartments, a hotel, a new road system, public open space on the waterfront, commercial space for retail and offices and a community center.
The rezoning application includes a zoning text amendment and zoning map amendment to establish a Special Purpose District, which are typically designed to supplement and modify the underlying zoning for specific issues or goals of a neighborhood. The Zoning Map Amendment would rezone the northern part of the project area from M3-1 (heavy industrial use) and C4-2 are buildings, which are typically seen on Steinway Street in Astoria, to an M1-2 (light industrial uses) and R7- 1 district, where buildings can reach up to 14 stories. This would allow for the MIH program to apply. Approximately 75 percent of the project area zoned for C4-2 would stay the same.
During Monday’s hearing, Christopher Vitolano, a civil engineer for the applicants, said there are traces of metal and petroleum in soil in the rezoning area – typical chemicals seen in waterways near industrial businesses – and the developers will carry out remediation efforts.
Three of the project sites are slated for condominiums (known as Sites 1, 2, and 3) and one (Site 4) is slated for some affordable housing under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program. According to applicants testimony, there will be an estimated 70 to 95 MIH units, including 25 percent which would be studios, 50 percent that would be one-bedroom units and 25 percent two-bedroom units.
If it is a single property where MIH applies, such as Site 4 in the Special Flushing Waterfront District rezoning plan, then the applicant–whether it’s a developer or a city agency–gets to pick one of four options the program offers developers:
Option #1 requires developers to set aside 25 percent of units for families making an average of 60 percent AMI, or $61,440 for a family of three. It also requires that at least 10 percent of the total units must be set aside for families making an average of 40 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) or $40,960 for a family of three.
Option #2 requires developers to set aside 30 percent of units for families making an average of 80 percent AMI, or $81,920 for a family of three.
The “Deep Affordability Option,” or Option #3, requires that 20 percent of the rent-restricted units be affordable to families making 40 percent AMI, or $40,960 for a family of three.
Option #4, also known as the Workforce Option, requires that 30 percent of the rent-restricted units are affordable to families making 115 percent AMI or between $112,640 and $122,880 for a family of three, with required percentages at several different income bands. However, developers using the Workforce Option cannot use public funding. And Options #3 and #4 cannot be applied by themselves—they must be selected alongside one or both of the first two options.
The Special Flushing Waterfront District has been met with discord from community organizations. In September, the Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance and MinKwon Center for Community Action, along with several local groups, rallied and marched through Main Street against the plan and demanded local Councilmember Koo reject the application.
The rally raised concerns against potential displacement, rising rents, as well as the impact the project could have on small, long-standing businesses and the environment.
Queens Community Board 7 approved the rezoning 30-8 in February, despite the opposition. However, interim Queens Borough President Sharon Lee recommended against approval of the in an advisory opinion in mid-March.
In her recommendations, Lee the potential for adverse impacts was too great. Lee’s conditions for approval included a commitment from the developers to paying prevailing wages, hiring union labor and building more affordable housing, as well as adding new school seats in downtown Flushing. Newly-elected Queens Borough President and Councilmember Donovan Richards has yet to publicly state his position on the plan.*
The pending lawsuit
In June, a coalition of community groups which includes Chhaya Community Development Corporation, MinKwon Center for Community Action, the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, and local activist Robert Loscalzo, filed a lawsuit against the DCP and the City Planning Commission over the Special Flushing Waterfront District rezoning plan.
The lawsuit alleges the city must pursue a complete environmental review process before it approves this development, instead of a less extensive Environmental Assessment Statement (or EAS). It says the city was wrong to give the proposed waterfront development plan a negative declaration, meaning there would not be a significant impact on the environment as a result of the project, and so no detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is needed.
The coalition found that decision odd, since the administration had foreseen multiple impacts when it considered a broader Flushing rezoning in 2015. That proposal was ultimately withdrawn. The current private rezoning application covers a portion of the area that was included in the city’s abandoned Flushing West rezoning plan.
The de Blasio administration filed a motion in September to dismiss a pending lawsuit against the rezoning application, saying citing the development plan had been prematurely challenged, according to court records. The next court date is scheduled for January.
*A previous version of this story incorrectly said Donovan Richards supports the rezoning. He has not yet taken a public position on the plan.