Locals’ Lawsuit Slams Flushing Waterfront Development Project
By Christine Chung
Jun 8, 2020, 1:13pm EDT
The city’s development review process has been stalled for months, but Queens activists are jump-starting their bid to block a rezoning proposal that could bring hotels, offices and luxury apartments to the Flushing waterfront.
A trio of groups — Chhaya CDC, Minkwon Center for Community Action and the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, along with a community member — have filed suit against the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission, arguing that an environmental review must be conducted for the 40-acre development proposal.
Since a three-developer consortium announced the Special Waterfront Flushing District project December 2019, sustained community opposition has centered around potential environmental, economic and social impacts the project could unleash on Flushing.
The developers’ plans call for a 13-tower complex that includes retail, hotels, offices, and more than 1,700 apartments.
The neighborhood is “under siege,” the suit charges, with its working class and largely immigrant residents facing increasing threat of displacement as rents trend upwards. The rezoning represents “the dreams of developers rather than the needs of Flushing residents,” the petition reads.
Will Spisak, director of programs at Chhaya, said that the neighborhood, as the city reels from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, is facing an “existential threat.”
“These kinds of projects, these luxury developments, place the needs of developers and investors above the needs of the community and the people that live in it.”
A Fraught History
The rezoning proposal is being assessed under the city’s uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, which has been frozen by mayoral executive order since March 16. The plaintiffs believe that hearings will resume as soon as the City Planning Commission and the City Council both begin meeting virtually, the petition asserts.
Joe Marvilli, a spokesperson for the Department of City Planning, said that the petition is being reviewed.
“The Special Flushing Waterfront District is before the City Planning Commission, awaiting its public hearing once ULURP resumes,” he said. He did not indicate when ULURP is expected to restart.
The lawsuit marks the latest development in what has been more than a decade-long story of community opposition to waterfront development in Flushing.
In 2015, the city proposed rezoning the same area adjoining the Flushing River, labeling it Flushing West. The Department of City Planning withdrew the proposal the following year, after Councilmember Peter Koo and others raised concerns that included tall buildings impinging on flight paths to LaGuardia Airport.
In December, the City Planning Commission certified a newly envisioned waterfront project to begin the ULURP process — this time under a private-developer application.
That launched weeks of meetings hosted by Community Board 7, leading to a February 2020 ‘yes’ vote from the board.
The following month, Acting Borough President Sharon Lee recommended that the city reject the project. The standardized review procedure is to culminate in votes from both the City Planning Commission and the City Council. Those votes have yet to be scheduled.
The lawsuit argues that a full environmental impact statement was omitted and is necessary.
This statement would provide a more thorough analysis of the project’s impacts on greater Flushing and give community members an opportunity to respond to this document, said Paula Segal, attorney for the plaintiffs. Without these steps, it’s “incomplete to start public review,” she added.
Seonae Byeon, a housing organizer at Minkwon, said that the group will continue to fight the project “in every aspect.”
“The whole process has been wrong with this rezoning,” Byeon said. “Up and until now the (ULURP) process hasn’t really been functioning as it’s supposed to since it’s not supporting community voices.”
The consortium of developers, FWRA LLC, declined to comment.
‘A Slap in the Face’
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has brought into greater relief the community’s need for affordable rents, said John Choe, the executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce and a Community Board 7 member.
“The pandemic has exposed the huge problem with this development, that it’s totally unnecessary and in fact, is detrimental to the many small businesses that have created Flushing as a destination for tourism, shopping and economic activity throughout the region,” Choe said.
He added that the growing number of luxury developments in the area, such as a 448-unit waterfront tower called Sky View Parc, had already driven up commercial rents “higher than what you’ll find in Midtown Manhattan.”
Flushing’s community cannot handle additional gentrification and displacement, Byeon said.
City Planning data shows 56% of the roughly 250,000 residents living in Community District 7 — which spans Flushing and adjacent neighborhoods such as College Point — are rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 45% of income on rent — well above the city’s average of 35%.
Over the past decade, developers built more than 3,000 new condo units in Flushing, second in the city only to Williamsburg, according to reporting by The New York Times.
From 2000 to 2018, the median sale price for a condo in the area more than doubled to $680,000, the Furman Center found.
“COVID was a slap in the face,” Byeon said. “The rezoning is another one.”