August 27 2020

Queens Activists Want to Put People First in Development

by Jose Cardoso
August 27, 2020

More than 100 people tuned in over Facebook Live and Zoom on Tuesday night to participate in a virtual town hall about large-scale development and rezoning in Queens.

Participants in the People’s Town Hall, which was organized by local grassroots groups such as Woodside on the Move, Western Queens Community Land Trust, and the Justice for All Coalition, discussed what they called the anti-democratic methods used to push forward large-scale development projects in the borough. 

The lack of public input in development and zoning projects from Long Island City to Flushing undermines the interest of local communities, the organizers and participants at the People’s Town Hall said, pointing to projects such as Sunnyside Yards, a proposed development to go over a rail yard.

“Sunnyside Yards is not going to be created for us,” Emily Sharp, the founder of Stop Sunnyside Yard. 

A project of the magnitude proposed for Sunnyside Yards, which would build affordable housing, public parks and more over a large existing rail yard, can take years, and that construction will be “non-stop” through nights and weekends, said Sharp. It will inconvenience many local residents who might never see it finished due to its magnitude and scale.

The Sunnyside Yards development is in City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer’s (D-Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City, Astoria, Dutch Kills) district. Van Bramer’s office did not respond to request for comment.

Instead of development and rezoning, the participants asked for the city to take other actions that they said would better benefit the community. They asked for the elimination of Major Capital Improvements, which allow landlords to raise rents in rent stabilized apartments, for relief to be provided to small landlords and for the end to rezoning plans across Queens. 

The debate comes against the backdrop of a controversial project in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Initially the $1 billion commercial project to expand Industry City was initially killed by City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Sunset Park, Red Hook, Greenwood Heights, Dyker Heights, Windsor Terrace and portions of Borough Park) who said he was concerned the project would further gentrify Sunset Park and displace working class people in the immigrant-heavy community. Tha development is currently in limbo. 

The town hall participants discussed other developments across Queens as well. 

In the case of Innovation Queens, a $2 billion development at the border of Astoria and Dutch Kills, the participants said the community outreach was minimal, took place during COVID-19 and consisted mainly of surveys. 

Seonae Byeon, a housing organizer at the Minkwon Center for Community Action, talked about rezoning in Flushing. According to Byeon, the community is unhappy with waterfront development. This has been an issue for a decade, Byeon said. It will cause gentrification and potentially displace residents. 

A dissenting voice at the town hall, however, was a unionized construction worker who said that he didn’t mind the development. With development comes years of well-paying jobs, he said. 

But for one decades-long Queens resident, the damage has already been done, she said. It’s gotten too expensive for her to live in the borough so she’s moving to Georgia. 

As a parting gift, she gave those at the town hall an idea: mirror Black Lives Matter, organize demonstrations and get media overage. Rise up and put a stop to the developments.