At the Department of City Planning’s first public meeting on a potential rezoning of Long Island City on Tuesday, many audience members expressed concern that a rezoning would exacerbate displacement, while two local developers asked for an extension of the rezoning study to their blocks.
The meeting came nearly two years after Mayor de Blasio announced his intention to rezone the neighborhood, though DCP has been meeting with local stakeholder groups privately. Last month, the agency said its study was progressing slowly because it was in the midst of studying mechanisms to create a true mixed-use district. While the Bloomberg era rezoning of the area in 2001 was intended to catalyze the creation of office space, it instead lead to a proliferation of residential towers and a lack of retail amenities.
DCP Queens director John Young explained that the new rezoning study, which spans a 50-block area situated between Sunnyside Yard and Queensbridge Houses, aims to produce a truly mixed-use neighborhood with commercial, community facility, and residential space. DCP also hopes to spur the development of affordable housing using de Blasio’s new mandatory inclusionary housing policy, which requires that developers ensure 20 to 30 percent of units are rent-restricted. Of the 13,000 units built or under construction in the area since the Bloomberg rezoning, only about 650 are affordable.
The agency believes that with its great transit access and adjacency to the nearly finished Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island, Long Island City is well poised to absorb additional density. Officials said specific zoning recommendations will be developed over the course of the next five months after further public engagement.
Both Young and DCP’s Long Island City planner Penny Lee worked for the Department of City Planning during the Bloomberg era, and said they recognized that the earlier rezoning of Long Island City didn’t produce the intended results.
“We know we don’t always get it right and in part that’s why we’re here tonight,” Lee said, while Young noted that the new plan would allow the neighborhood to “grow and transform in a way that is a little more equitable” and include “good economic opportunities” for people living in the neighborhood. They also said the agency recognized the need for investments in local infrastructure, including transportation, parks, and streetscaping, and noted a city task force is already looking at school needs within the district.
Queensbridge Houses will not be rezoned, but officials said the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) would help connect residents to jobs associated with the rezoning and that there may be streetscaping improvements to the streets bordering public housing. Officials said neighboring Sunnyside Yards, which the mayor has expressed interested in decking and redeveloping, is still undergoing a feasibility study.
Conflicting concerns from tenants, developers
While DCP staff approached the meeting as an introduction to the concept of rezoning, several participants were conscious of the prior effects of the Bloomberg rezoning and deeply concerned about a potential for displacement. Some expressed skepticism that the “affordable housing” would really be affordable to current residents, who are already being priced out, while others argued that speculation and development would further exacerbate rent increases in the surrounding area.
“We are scared to death, because how much can you charge a kid for a ballet class?” said Zoe Morsette, a member of Long Island City’s large artist community, which has struggled with soaring rent increase in recent years. “And my apartment building is in this zone and I’m wondering, are they going to tear down this building?”
A resident of Ravenswood Houses said that the construction of new towers in the area has not lead to jobs for existing residents, that mom and pop shops have been priced out, and that even public housing residents can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood due to increases in their rent under federal formulas. The rezoning, she was concerned, would not help the homeless and others who truly need housing.
“You have to work with the people who are here. We built this area. You can’t just discard us like we’re recyclable garbage,” she said.
Elder Diane Brown, leader of the Justice for All Coalition, a group of local stakeholders that has organized in response to the rezoning, raised concerns that the Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar project will also cause real estate prices to rise, furthering pressures on the surrounding community, while Ann McDermott of Take Back NYC argued that de Blasio is “totally in the pocket of the real estate industry.”
A variety of alternatives to a rezoning were offered, including a moratorium on new development, the creation of deeply low-income housing, especially on public land using community land trusts, better enforcement of rent stabilization laws and AirBNB regulations, and commercial rent control.
Naved Husain, an organizer with CAAAV, called for an analysis of a rezoning on “the diversity of Long Island City, in particular the communities of color and low-income communities.” As City Limits reported last month, if there are displacement risks to rezoning, they would be disproportionately borne by low-income communities of color because of the roster of communities the administration has targeted for new density.
Attendees also called for improvements to subway and bus infrastructure, for more affordable retail, and for the creation of good local jobs at decent wages linked to apprenticeship programs.
At the same time, two developers in manufacturing areas requested that the city extend the rezoning to their properties. One, whose property may have been in an industrial business zone, said that commercial rents would keep going up unless he and other owners were allowed to expand the supply of commercial property.
Shaun Dougherty, a local developer, shuttle operator and owner of the restaurant Crescent Grill, said that hotel-to-shelter conversions in the area north of the rezoning study were devastating his businesses. He said he would be willing to build affordable housing if the city permitted him to built up.
“I’m just not a developer looking to cash in to LIC and then leave…We’re longstanding members of this community,” he said.
In response to concerns about displacement, Lee said that taking no action would not create affordable housing and that it was necessary to boost commercial density to offset the rising demand for commercial space that is pricing out artists. She noted one public property in the area that is currently a city office building; the city intends to redevelop the property with an economic purpose, though some housing is also a possibility. She also said DCP would be examining the demographic composition of the area, but that speculation was likely not going to occur in the rezoning area because the properties had already been upzoned before. Young said discussing displacement would be part of the engagement process.
Lee and Young also reiterated that SBS will help connect residents with economic opportunities, that the city will explore mechanisms to ensure the creation of retail, and that they would take a look at the blocks Dougherty wants rezoned, but are adverse to upzoning industrial business zones.
At the end of the meeting, Young said that all residents’ concerns had been recorded and would become the basis for the plan’s development. Yet some remain skeptical of the process as a whole.
“If the public in Long Island City says we don’t want any development, that’s not an option, right?” Husain asked at one point.
“We don’t have to listen to it. That said, if everybody shows up with pitch forks, we will notice,” Lee joked.