With the rezoning plan for East New York approved by City Council, negotiations are heating up in Flushing, the second neighborhood slated for an upzoning.
On Thursday, a coalition of community groups called the Flushing Rezoning Community Alliance (FRCA) released a report outlining conditions in the neighborhood and offering the city 11 recommendations to address community needs, from the development of a public site with 100 percent affordable housing to investments in local transportation infrastructure.
De Blasio’s plan for Flushing, as City Limits reported in February, targets 11 historically industrial blocks between downtown Flushing and the polluted Flushing Creek. While the area still contains vacant lots, scrap yards and parking lots, it’s also in the midst of a real-estate boom, partially spurred by the announcement of the rezoning and visible in new luxury condominiums, malls and hotels.
The city hopes to create a mandatory inclusionary housing zone in the area, increase the allowable residential density, spur small-business development and improve residents’ access to the waterfront.
Downtown Flushing residents have roughly the same median income as East New York residents ($34,000 and $32,000, respectively) and FRCA members want to ensure the plan includes housing that residents can afford, as well as strong anti-displacement measures.
“Without these steps and future efforts to increase affordable housing, we fear that the Downtown Flushing rezoning will be another step along a path of unchecked real estate profit for multi-national corporations on the backs of working class and immigrant New Yorkers,” the report states.
Yet the outcomes in East New York—disappointing to advocates who wanted additional units for families making below 30 percent of area median income, roughly $25,000 for a family of three—are especially worrisome to FRCA members, who say the city has even fewer tools at its disposal to create deeply affordable housing in Flushing.
While a DCP presentation says that it will “encourage private and mission-driven developers to build affordable housing on public and private sites with HPD subsidy,” the agency’s draft scope for Flushing indicates that, in contrast to East New York where the market is relatively weak, developers will not need to rely on subsidies to build.
The creation of affordable housing will instead rely on the implementation of the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing requirement, which the city believes will create 515 to 619 affordable units out of a total of 3,316 new units—though possibly fewer, depending on which mandatory inclusionary housing option is selected by the City Council and other factors.
In any scenario presented within the plan’s scope, fewer than 19 percent of new units will be affordable, because the Skyview Park mall and condominium complex, currently underway, will have no affordable units. In contrast, the East New York draft scope promised that more than 50 percent of new units would be affordable.
Neighborhood advocates face another disadvantage: less time to negotiate relative to the other six rezoning neighborhoods announced in February 2015.
“The pace is a challenge,” says Emily Goldstein, senior organizer at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “I do think that puts [stakeholders] at a disadvantage and in some way shortchanges the community.”
As in East New York, where DCP was already finishing a neighborhood study when De Blasio came to office, the Flushing Willits Point Corona Local Development Corporation (LDC) was completing a rezoning proposal at the time de Blasio announced his housing plan. City Planning took over the plan in the fall of 2014. The city expected to launch ULURP certification as early as this April, though certification has been postponed to an unknown date.
Faced with these realities—furious market-rate development and a relatively short timeline—the Alliance’s proposal takes a practical approach, focusing on tangible ways to ensure the plan serves Flushing’s residents.
Seeking tools for deep affordability
To ensure the new housing serves current residents, FRCA is calling on Flushing Council Member Peter Koo to apply the new mandatory inclusionary housing option that dedicates 20 percent of units to families making 40 percent AMI, in conjunction with option 1 (which requires 25% of units for families making 60% AMI). The report also recommends rezoning a nearby municipal parking lot that is currently excluded from the plan to spur the development of 233 units of affordable housing—increasing the share of affordable units to over 20 percent and as much as 24 percent of the total.
During the Council’s negotiations on Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, Koo was a strong supporter of adding the 40 percent AMI option. In an e-mail to City Limits, however, he said that “with the simultaneous development of both municipal parking lots 1 and 3, now is not the time to consider developing Muni Lot 2.”
FRCA also hopes the city will consider the feasibility of applying a Floor Area Availability Bonus to the rezoning area. The tool, originally envisioned by the Real Affordability for All Coalition (RAFA), would offer developers extra density in exchange for providing more units of affordable housing and abiding by additional labor requirements.
According to the Alliance, while the administration has agreed to study ways to reach deeper levels of affordability in rezoning neighborhoods, it has argued that Flushing is too far along in the rezoning process to incorporate a voluntary density bonus mechanism, and that adding further height may not be feasible because the neighborhood’s proximity to LaGuardia airport means there are building height restrictions. While DCP representatives would not confirm whether they gave these comments, they and Councilman Koo both noted the problem of airport height constraints in e-mails to City Limits.
According to a study by the Hester Street Collaborative, however, the city could apply a voluntary bonus to at least two sites in the rezoning area that the city hopes to rezone from manufacturing to high-density mixed use. Rather than give away the density all at once, Hester Street Collaborative suggests, the city could create a tiered system, giving additional density to developers who agree to build more affordable housing. (Hester Street included that approach in its analysis but does not endorse it.)**
The report’s other housing recommendations include establishing a universal right to counsel in housing court, setting aside 50 percent of units in new buildings for residents from downtown Flushing instead of all residents of Queens community district 7, establishing a Good Neighbor Tax Credit for small landlords who keep rents low, investing additional resources in enrolling residents in the Senior Citizen and Disability Rent Increase Exemption programs (SCRIE and DRIE), and changing regulations to ensure undocumented immigrants and those without credit can access affordable housing units. The city has already suggested a willingness to work on those latter two recommendations.
In addition, FRCA offers several recommendations to address overcrowded streets and subways, a perceived lack of senior centers, sanitation problems and creek remediation.
Concerns about developers’ influence
The report expresses concern with how closely the city’s rezoning plan mirrors the proposal developed by the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation, whose membership includes developers with a direct stake in the rezoning area.
In 2008, Former Queens Borough president Claire Shulman and then deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff, in direct consultation with then-Mayor Bloomberg, launched the LDC to lobby for Bloomberg’s proposal to create a commercial district in Willets Point near the New York Mets station. The LDC received donations to the tune of $450,000 from the Economic Development Corporation and corporate sponsors like the Metz to launch a publicity campaign to influence City Council’s vote. In 2012, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman declared the LDC’s activities illegal under state laws that forbid local development corporations from lobbying to influence legislation.
When the LDC admitted to lobbying and agreed to stop, it had already turned its attention to West Flushing. In 2010, the organization had received a $1.5 million Brownfield Opportunity Grant from the state to explore how to promote community development and waterfront access in the area adjacent to Flushing Creek. In the fall of 2014, the LDC contracted the Department of City Planning to conduct an environmental review using $800,000 of funds from the state grant. Around the same time, the Department of City Planning decided to adopt the plan into its neighborhood rezoning efforts.
The LDC does not deny the similarities between their plan and the city’s current rezoning proposal.
“[Our] plan was always to develop a comprehensive [proposal] that includes affordable housing, and City Planning is fine tuning. It’s gone to a granular level,” says Alexandra Rosa, a consultant for the LDC.
But Carol McLoughlin of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Queens and a member of FRCA says the results of the corporation’s study were never made public, which makes her wonder if DCP wanted to hide the extent to which its proposal mirrors the corporation’s plan.
“It certainly gives the appearance of [DCP] supporting the plan of the LDC and the developers, as opposed to really meeting the needs of the public,” she says.
*FRCA’s report notes many similarities between the LDC’s recommendations and the city’s proposal: including an upzoning from C4-2 to C4-4 to promote residential development, and the conversion of manufacturing lots to mixed-use.
According to the city’s draft scope, the LDC “solicited feedback from a wide range of community stakeholders,” crafting a plan that addressed a variety of community needs. But members of FRCA have expressed concern that member organizations of the LDC—including construction companies, law offices, developers and architectural firms—stand to benefit directly or indirectly from a rezoning.
At least two of the LDC’s member organizations have property within the rezoning area: Onex Real Estate Partners, for instance, owns the new mall and condominium complex known as Skyview Park. According to the draft scope, the rezoning changes would have little impact on Skyview Park.
But the rezoning could create development opportunities for another member organization, F&T Group, which owns a parking lot, a scrap yard and the now closed Flushing Mall. Absent a rezoning, F&T has the right to redevelop the parking lot to build 436 market-rate units of housing. With the rezoning, F&T could build 606 units, including 454 market-rate units and 154 affordable units, on the parking lot. The rezoning would also allow F&T Group to convert the scrap yard to a commercial destination, such as a 184-unit hotel.
In the case of Flushing Mall, the rezoning would not benefit F&T, but rather regulate development to serve the mayor’s housing goals. Without a rezoning, the city expects F&T group to redevelop Flushing Mall into a mixed-use commercial and residential complex. The rezoning would require F&T to make affordable housing a part of that mix, and increase space for community facilities.
In an editorial last summer, director of DCP’s Queens Borough Office John Young, denied that the LDC has an “outsize influence on the process,” arguing that their plan includes affordable housing requirements, while the LDC’s did not, contrary to Rosa’s comments.
“The LDC has no veto power over our work. Rather, the public does—via the city’s transparent and multilayered public land-use review procedure,” Young wrote.
Loughlin says that to prove the agency is not beholden to developers associated with the LDC, DCP must create a plan that “actually meets what people are asking for in terms of housing and the other needs of Flushing.”
*Correction: The original version of this article reported that “Hester Street Collaborative filed a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain the plan.” In fact, the Collaborative obtained the plan without submitting a FOIL request.
**Clarification: This parenthetical information was added to the story after publication.