Flushing West Rezoning is Dead, But Push to Change Neighborhood’s Look Lives On

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Rezoning or no, local leaders have strong concerns about Flushing's increasingly overtaxed infrastructure.

Shinya Suzuki

Rezoning or no, local leaders have strong concerns about Flushing's increasingly overtaxed infrastructure.

Last June, after Council Member Peter Koo and other local elected officials voiced opposition to the city’s proposal to rezone Flushing West, the Department of City Planning announced it would put its plan on hold. Citing technical challenges to building higher, including a high water table and height restrictions due to the area’s proximity to La Guardia airport, agency official said they had their own concerns about an upzoning, but were not scrapping their study altogether, either.

In fact, the city was still required to complete a report under the terms of a contract with the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation, which had received a state Brownfield Opportunity Grant to explore how to revitalize the area.

The city’s report and an accompanying environmental analysis will likely be released in April, officials told City Limits.

Flushing West is an 11-block neighborhood that sits west of Flushing’s Prince Street and east of the polluted Flushing creek. It includes some parcels along the waterfront that remain underutilized and inaccessible to the public. On other lots, high-end commercial and condominium development is already proliferating as-of-right.

The forthcoming report will discuss particular sites along the waterfront and recommend zoning changes to improve waterfront access, create open space and improve road access. There would be no additional density and no mapping of a mandatory inclusionary housing zone.

“It would fulfill our ability to enhance the livability of Flushing. That was always the overall goal of studying it,” says John Young, director of the Department of City Planning Queens office.

DCP no longer intends to apply for a rezoning itself. Instead, it expects that when property owners of waterfront parcels seek to develop their sites, they will apply for the zoning recommendations laid out in DCP’s report. Developers need certain permissions to build along the waterfront, and the City Planning Commission would likely hold developers accountable to follow the recommendations of the report, according to DCP.

Yet with land prices already soaring and developers and residents alike complaining about overtaxed sewer infrastructure and overcrowded transit, some local constituents remain concerned about the city’s plans.

The Flushing Rezoning Community Alliance criticized the city’s original upzoning plan, which they believed did not include enough affordable units or an adequate displacement strategy, but when the city dropped that plan, the alliance expressed fears that the city would neglect Flushing altogether. They are now concerned about the city’s latest plan because it will not include a mandatory inclusionary housing zone, and therefore no guarantees of affordable housing.

“These zoning text amendments are the worst of both worlds in many ways. They will make the area more desirable while not creating any mandatory inclusionary housing requirements, thus threatening further displacement with no affordable housing created,” said the alliance in a statement, adding that they would continue pushing for affordable housing on municipal lot 2, which is currently a parking lot, and more investments in infrastructure.

In an e-mail to City Limits, Koo’s office said that while he will wait to see the exact recommendations in the report, he supports design adjustments to improve waterfront accessibility and new streetscapes to minimize traffic congestion.
Furthermore, he “disagree[s] that retaining the positive streetscape design elements of the Flushing West rezoning should be viewed negatively. A uniform waterfront and fluid streets that minimize traffic congestion are good for the neighborhood.”

Addressing neighborhood concerns about a lack of affordable housing, the Councilmember’s office noted Koo’s prior commitment to building rent-restricted housing on another public lot, and said Koo is already in preliminary discussions to build more rent-restricted housing elsewhere in the neighborhood, though he believes that, at least for now, municipal lot 2 should remain a parking lot.

State Senator Tony Avella says that while he is concerned about a lack of sufficient affordable housing in Flushing, it is difficult to say whether zoning requirements to improve waterfront access would, by making the area more desirable, exacerbate the displacement of local residents.

He expressed concern, however, that the LDC, which was fined for illegal lobbying in 2012, was behind the study. As City Limits reported in April, at least two of the LDC’s member organizations, Onex Real Estate Partners and F&T Group, are active real-estate developers with property in the rezoning area.

Asked to comment on the personal interests of LDC members in the zoning changes, Alexandra Rosa, a consultant for the organization, emphasized the plan’s benefits to the public, including waterfront access and recreational opportunities. She also noted that the LDC was first to propose an affordable housing project already underway in the neighborhood, and will continue to seek opportunities to promote affordable housing, including potentially at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

“Moving forward with our work will ensure public access and vital connections to the greater Flushing area,” said Rosa in an e-mail to City Limits.

Even without a rezoning, both Avella and Koo have strong concerns about Flushing’s increasingly overtaxed infrastructure, and both voiced the need for increased resources from the city.

“How is the city going to make sure development is not outpacing our infrastructure?
It’s why we rejected Flushing West,” wrote Koo’s office. “Our office is involved with reconstructing Main Street and widening the sidewalks, building school expansions and implementing new sanitation pickups, but Flushing is already overcrowded. Mass transit is full to capacity. It’s taken over 10 years just to get the MTA to build an elevator on the LIRR, and that’s only now under construction …We welcome a strategic approach to redevelopment, but not without a bold and actionable plan to address our infrastructure problems.”

Officials from the Department of City Planning, however, said that the city is committed to investing in infrastructure improvements in Flushing, and pointed to the city’s expansions of Select Bus Service, and the Department of Environmental Protection’s ongoing work to address the pollution in Flushing creek and the neighborhood’s taxed sewer and storm water infrastructure.

The agency also said that the city will continue searching for opportunities to build affordable housing on other public lots, and expressed hopes that the reinstitution of the 421a tax credit could also contribute to affordable housing development in the area.

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