Walking through downtown Flushing can be overwhelming for newcomers. From the bustling shops to the crowded sidewalks, the "recession-proof" community is a rich mix of high capital and white- and blue-collar labor.
West of Main Street and north of Roosevelt Avenue, however, is a different story. The waterfront alongside the Flushing Creek is not as developed. Manufacturing plants, empty lots and isolated hardware stores are just some of the scenery. The smell of the Flushing Creek, when up close, is unbearable.
But it is changing with SkyViewParc creating a luxury hotel and mall featuring chains like Nike or Best Buy. One Fulton Square is also attracting interest with luxury housing and dining. And more change is coming. Two years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio chose this unusual area named Flushing West as one of the first three neighborhoods (along with Brooklyn's East New York and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx) to undergo comprehensive studies for likely rezonings under his affordable housing plan.
Like other neighborhoods that are set to be rezoned, the proposal for Flushing has drawn some criticism—although there are also forces in Flushing that support a redrawing of the map for the area.
Before a rezoning could be contemplated, a study of the area was needed first, and the Department of City Planning’s Queens Borough Office began one last year. It focused on an areas below Northern Boulevard (on its north side) running west from Prince Street to Flushing Creek north of Roosevelt Avenue, and from College Point Boulevard west to the creek from Roosevelt down to 40th Road and the LIRR tracks. A sliver of undeveloped land on the west side of the creek, pinched between the water and the Van Wyck Expressway, is also included.
The DCP is not the first to study the area. The Flushing – Willets Point – Corona Local Development Corporation, led by former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, received a $1.5 million grant from the state’s Department of State to redevelop the waterfront. The area is a brownfield site, one of many contaminated areas the city noted for redevelopment in 2011.
Alexandra Rosa, project consultant for the LDC, says the mayor's announcement complimented LDC’s goals for the waterfront.
"The LDC has now engaged the DCP using the funds from the state to complete a brownfield nomination study and master plan for the Flushing Creek waterfront. That planning has expanded the study to also include downtown Flushing and additional methods to strengthen it, while creating this new community called Flushing West," she says.
The LDC – whose members include SkyViewParc and The New York Mets – will review the DCP’s recommendations and the master plan for Flushing West.
"Flushing West has 47 buildable acres of land, and it creates a wonderful opportunity to create a comprehensive community that is planned and sustainable rather than a patchwork of housing opportunity in different areas," Rosa says. "They are so many complimentary goals that could be achieved."
City Planning officials have held 12 community meetings over the past year in Flushing to hear residents’ concerns and suggestions. A clean Flushing Creek, better transportation, mental health services, care for seniors and affordable housing were just some of the desires that emerged.
"A lot of what we’ve been trying to think about is to achieve accomplishments on all of those particular perspectives," John Young, director of the DCP’s Queens Borough Office, says.
The draft rezoning would increase the density of existing residential areas in the study zone, shift light manufacturing areas to mixed-use and change the waterfront from heavy to light manufacturing.
The affordable housing goals of the plan are part of the mayor's Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning proposal. According to a DCP presentation in November, two options were being considered for the area: Requiring that 25 percent of housing floor area be reserved for units priced affordably for households making an average of 60 percent Area Median Income (AMI), or $46,620 annually for a family of three or requiring that 30 percent of housing floor area be reserved for units rented to people with an average income of 80 percent AMI ($62,150 annually for a family of three).
Executive Director of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, Grace Shim, is concerned with the high AMI standard for local residents. The DCP uses $77,700 for a family of three as 100 percent of AMI. The city’s Department of Housing Development and Preservation found the median household income in Flushing as $39,800.
"Considering that 75 percent of newly-built units still will be market-rate housing, most of the units built from the city's rezoning plan won't be affordable to current residents, who are already rent-burdened," Shim says. "There are also concerns about tenant harassment and displacement as well as gentrification caused by rezoning that could potentially accelerate rent hikes, thus displacing many low-income families in Flushing."
Fifty-five percent of households in Flushing and Whitestone are considered rent-burdened, according to the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Rent hikes are a particular concern for senior citizens who do not earn much. A 2013 report from the Center for Urban Future found 52 percent of Korean seniors live in poverty in Flushing. As an alternative, Shim suggested housing "adjusted to different income levels of each rezoning neighborhood" instead of the options provided by the DCP.
John Choe, executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, says traditional incentives for developers could not work, especially with Flushing West mostly in private hands.
"Affordable housing isn't going to be built by itself. It needs a large investment by the city to make sure it’s right," he says.
Young says he is aware of concerns and says the agency is doing the best it can given the city’s standards or, in the case of AMI, federal standards. "That’s a real challenge to develop this citywide program, but are there ways to make it in Flushing," he says.
Councilmember Peter Koo, D-Flushing, submitted a response to the DCP’s draft scope for the environmental review of the project published last October. AMI was one concern of his as the median household income in one part of the zoning area is $13,958. He also referred to needs for capital investment.
"This neighborhood planning process has the potential to transform the Flushing waterfront into a healthy, economically vibrant, mixed-income community. However, this planning process will only be successful if adequate investments are made to not only mitigate the impacts of the proposed increased floor area, but also address the existing capital needs of the community," Koo wrote in the document.
Small businesses are also a major part of Flushing. Getting off at the 7 train’s Flushing – Main Street station reveals a world of endless shops and restaurants. Choe says he worked with the DCP on bringing them to the study. "Very early on, we identified small businesses as being one of the major stakeholders groups that needed to be represented in this process," he says.
Choe says Flushing was often neglected by the city with lack of investment for transportation or local tax revenue often shrinking when returning for capital investment. This effort would change that relationship.
"For a long time, Flushing has been a forgotten part of the city when it comes to these engagements. We're working very closely with city agencies to make sure we have a different planning process," Choe says.
The DCP is still meeting with stakeholders, but will complete a draft plan by April. The department anticipates moving the plan through the city's ULURP (uniform land-use review procedure) this spring. That means the community board and borough president will have the ability to review the plan, and the City Council and planning commission will vote on it.
Queens Community Board 7, which oversees neighborhoods including Flushing, brought up concerns with the DCP's study. Land Use Chairperson Joseph Sweeney says the board was concerned with the lack of parking in the plan. Low-income apartments as well as senior housing barely have any parking in a place where it is difficult to find a spot.
"It could have a serious effect on the businesses in the area. That’s a major, major concern," Sweeney says. He felt the DCP approached the community board for quick approval to complete the process. "I get this feeling they're rushing this because this is what mayor wants," Sweeney says.
Young is committed to addressing parking concerns in the proposal. He says the city's standards on parking affected an accommodating Flushing West plan.
"We are certainly looking at how to put a parking requirement in the Flushing West proposal that takes [those concerns] into account," Young says.
There will be a community meeting about this plan on Thursday, February 11th, from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm at the Flushing YMCA 138-46 Northern Blvd. Flushing, NY 11354.