CUF: How did you get involved in the urban development of Flushing?
WC: I was in my last year of architecture school, and I thought here was a live patient dying. Flushing was sputtering in the mid-’70s, and there was an open letter requesting assistance from the local community board. We did a lot of great things back then. We formed a local development corporation, we did a multilingual shopping guide/map, and the Flushing Fantastic street fair.
CUF: What’s your assessment of Flushing today?
WC: I’m a little dismayed that a quarter century later I’m still at the tarmac. I thought that we should have gotten a lot further than we are right now.
CUF: What’s the problem?
WC: In a sense, what a lot of downtowns take for granted, those amenities are missing in this community. It’s something as basic as we don’t have a men’s health club. We don’t have a decent bookstore, despite having the highest circulating branch library in the country. The pizza store is buried someplace here. So what you take for granted–to get a slice of pizza–is a treasure hunt.
CUF: That seems strange, because you go out on Main Street and it’s so busy.
WC: The big problem is Flushing has a very limited core. There are only a few blocks of streets in the downtown area that are zoned commercial. And, so, within those few blocks, we have to try to achieve what they envisioned half a century ago, which is that this is supposed to be the fourth largest retail district in the city. And, at one time, we were almost there. We had five department stores. But because of the demise of the department store in general across the globe we lost those opportunities.
CUF: Are there now opportunities to develop more retail in Flushing?
WC: Northeast Queens is mostly residential neighborhoods. The issue is how do we service this quarter of million people [in the Flushing area], or 2 million people in the county of Queens. What is lacking in Flushing is what is lacking in Queens. We have very limited choices. Historically, across North America, there are 23 square feet of retail space per person. In Queens, we only have 4 square feet. The shopping revenue goes out of the county, out of the city. And Nassau County, in the last 25 years, was built up on our blood. Our shopping revenue goes there, the sales tax revenue goes there. And that money should have been in this community to pay for the teacher salary increases, to build schools, to maintain parks, to build waterfront promenades.
CUF: It sounds like you’d like to see significant new commercial development.
WC: Do we really want our CBD to be a central business district or a central bedroom district? The job creation formula is that every 300 square feet of office space and every 500 square feet of retail space creates a new job. And retail is ideally suited for this community, in that you don’t need a PhD to operate a retail service job. That’s why I’m a little concerned about putting all the eggs in one basket, in a sense that everyone is building housing. And I’m a housing advocate. But you could build a 15 story apartment building, and how many jobs do you create? A one-shot deal and we have sacrificed our core, our commercial space. If I tried to invite you back to downtown and say, “Wait, you’ve got to look at this apartment building,” you’ll tell me, “No thanks.” You’ve got to give a reason for wanting to return to downtown, to shop or eat.
CUF: Why is Flushing the natural place for all of this commercial activity?
WC: From Flushing to Great Neck, there’s not another zoning for C4-2 [a zoning designation that allows for moderate commercial and residential development]. There’s a little strip by the LIE [Long Island Expressway] where the K-mart used to be, and that’s about it. Whereas here, at Shea Stadium, there are 9,000 parking spots, 98 percent of the time unused. You have 23 bus lines, two major rail lines. Flushing is accessible by land, by sea, by air.
CUF: But with such a limited core, how does Flushing grow?
WC: In my 25 years of banging my head against this wall, I’ve come to realize that a solution for Flushing lies west of the Flushing River. This river has two banks, but until the other bank is decided, we are in limbo. The western Flushing area is rather remote. A majority of people do not live there and [it] has no amenities.
One of the reasons why the western region of Flushing suffered a 30 percent loss in population during the 1990s is because we have a bleeding gum: the waterfront. One unfortunate graphic limitation of Flushing is that the waterfront drops 30 feet from College Point Boulevard. What you see across the way is not the Manhattan skyline. You see what is directly across the river in Willets Point, which is junkyards and construction debris.
CUF: The Bloomberg administration is now looking to redevelop this waterfront. What do you think?
WC: The Bloomberg administration deserves tremendous credit for handling a hot potato that no one in the past half of a century wants to handle. Robert Moses had a grand plan for this area before he passed away, and right after the World’s Fair of 1964, that area was designated as parks. But it was rescinded. And so, from then onwards, every attempt in the last 40 years to clean up that area has been met with no success, whether it’s Mario Cuomo, after he became governor, or [Mets owner] Fred Wilpon wanting to rebuild the area. It requires a tremendous effort, because the area has no sewer. The area has a lack of infrastructure.
CUF: Beyond Flushing, what are some of the fundamental challenges in Queens for the economy going forward?
WC: We’ve got to get up on our feet. If the county of Queens were to become a city, it would be the fifth largest city in the United States. It’s larger than Houston. This county used to think on a very different level. The two World’s Fairs generated over 50 million visitors each. We used to think on a global level. We used to compete on a global level. We need to get back on that mold.
CUF: Should the city’s government and business leaders be thinking of Queens, and all the boroughs outside of Manhattan, as engines for growth?
WC: The boroughs, with the right public policy and the right guidance, could be a tremendous economic generator. This administration recognizes that there needs to be a five-borough strategy. Each one is unique. The Bronx and Staten Island are different than Queens. Brooklyn and Queens share some similar characteristics. But each on its own is a different city. By using an integrated strategy, this could go a long way.