The Department of City Planning (DCP) is still in the early stages of studying Long Island City, one of ten neighborhoods that the De Blasio administration has proposed rezoning as part of the mayor’s affordable housing plan. At a workshop on Tuesday night, planners emphasized that they are still in the process of listening to community residents’ suggestions, with no concrete plans yet determined. Yet some residents, based on what they’ve heard from the city so far—a couple years into the slow-moving community engagement process—are not assured that their concerns about a rezoning will be taken into account. And many are starting to get tired of waiting for specifics of the potential plan.
“There has to be a little more information on the table that we can respond to,” said resident Tom Ort to City Limits at the meeting, while Kenneth Shelton, a Black Lives Matter activist from Jamaica, Queens, took a stronger tone while addressing DCP: “You go back to the drawing board and figure out how you can build 100 percent affordable housing.”
As in other areas considering a rezoning, one of the main issues under debate is whether a rezoning will end up improving or worsening the affordability crisis. The area was already rezoned by the Bloomberg Administration in 2001 without any affordability requirements, and the rezoning produced a lot more housing than expected.
The Department of City Planning says its current study is the only way that some of the problems of this earlier rezoning might be remediated. It’s expected that the city will once again upzone (or increase the allowable density) but this time mandate a portion of units to be affordable under the new mandatory inclusionary housing policy. Other goals of DCP’s study include creating a mixed-use neighborhood, facilitating job creation and economic development, and investing in infrastructure and community services.
Some participants at the meeting, however, were concerned that another upzone will only further exacerbate displacement pressures in the neighborhood. There were calls for downzoning (reducing the allowable density) and allowing additional height only to developers that agree to build affordable housing. Others called on the city to build 100 percent affordable housing on public land.
Jenny Dubnau, a local artist, criticized the De Blasio administration for a recent decision to give public land on the Long Island City waterfront to developer TF Cornerstone to build a 75 percent market-rate building.
“That is an outrage…Why is a for-profit developer developing that land?” she asked. “It always seems like you guys are working at the behest of the developers.”
The project will also include a school, commercial space, below-market manufacturing space and a park, and has been celebrated as a model for combining manufacturing space and residential units on the same site.
DCP’s Queens Director John Young said the agency could consider downzoning some parts of the neighborhood in conjunction with an upzoning. Staff from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) said they were also considering a variety of preservation strategies for existing affordable housing, that opportunities to build on public land would be further explored, and that the administration recently secured a $2.5 million investment in community land trusts citywide. Still, they argued that increasing the overall housing supply helps to drive down rents.
Prompted multiple times whether a rezoning, however, might increase speculation, Young finally acknowledged the possibility. “There are certainly additional pressures,” he said, if the rezoning takes the market in a different direction. However, he emphasized throughout the evening that “If nothing changes, all the buildings will be luxury only.”
Other concerns voiced included the effect of additional density on neighborhood infrastructure and open space, and whether the plan would provide sufficient benefits to existing low-income residents.
“Providing jobs in the community is not going to undo decades of segregation and education inequality,” said Lisa Ng, a Queensbridge Houses resident and member of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, while others said investments in job training initiatives don’t always lead to actual jobs.
Attending residents and activists also forced the planners to change the format of the meeting. City planners originally envisioned a brief presentation followed by an open-house, with attendees speaking to individual staff at tables segregated by topic, but some participants—both those greatly against and those more sympathetic to the city’s efforts—pressed for a town hall-style question and answer format. Young finally agreed that after thirty-minutes of open house they would publicly answer questions, though stressed that much of the plan had yet to be determined.
While the administration has been often criticized for upzoning majority low-income Black and Latino areas—making such neighborhoods potentially vulnerable to any risks that a rezoning might bring—Long Island City has been touted as an example of different kind of neighborhood: in Queens Community District 1, only about a third of residents are Black or Latino (a decrease since 2000) and the median income is about $60,000; same goes for neighboring Queens Community District 2.
Yet the median income doesn’t completely reflect the diversity of the neighborhood—as HPD acknowledges, there are residents spread throughout the income spectrum, and a majority of the housing in the two surrounding community districts is unregulated. There’s also concern from public housing residents that, while they may not be subject to direct displacement by changes in the market-rate rent, they will be hurt by rising neighborhood costs and their children will have no chance of affording even the “affordable” units of the new housing.
Tuesday’s meeting was the third of four summer public engagement workshops focusing on a variety of topics. The first workshop explored open space, the public realm and circulation; the second economic development, retail and arts and culture, and Tuesday’s meeting covered affordable housing, land use and climate resiliency. (Parts of the rezoning area are currently in the 500 year flood plain — meaning there is a .2 percent chance of flooding each year, but that could get worse, and so the city is considering whether to allow or require resiliency measures, such as allowing slightly higher buildings.)
Another meeting will be held on workforce development, likely toward the end of August. After a member of the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project complained of a lack of adequate awareness of past meetings and urged for at least two weeks notice, DCP agreed to give such notice for the meeting. Check back with City Limits Zone In Events for updates on the meeting date.