Last week’s hearing on the Jerome Avenue rezoning in the western Bronx was facilitated by a new member of the City Council: Queens Councilmember Francisco Moya, the new chair of the Land Use Committee’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. He mostly yielded the floor to Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera, whose districts overlap with the Jerome Avenue rezoning. But Moya also asked several of his own questions, including about wage levels for construction and building service workers, how many businesses the city expected would be displaced, and whether the city had plans to track and replace businesses and jobs lost, particularly for Jerome Avenue’s auto sector.
“We’ve seen in the past—and Willets [Point] is a prime example of what can happen when these redevelopments happen, the rezonings happen—the auto-workers then are displaced and then lose their jobs, lose their income,” said Moya, referring to the way that auto-workers were displaced as part of the redevelopment initiative in Willets Point, parts of his district. “I’m also looking to see, are we doing any follow-ups afterwards to see whether or not …are they still being employed?”
Carol Samol of the Department of City Planning said in reply that the agency expects 43 auto-businesses and 45 non-auto-businesses will be “directly displaced” on sites that are mostly likely to be redeveloped in the Jerome Avenue area, and that in addition to keeping a few spots zoned for auto-uses and manufacturing, the city is designing a program to assist auto-businesses meet regulatory requirements and is launching a new citywide loan program for small business across the city.
The chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises is not an all-powerful position. Given that it is customary practice for the Council to defer to the opinion of the local councilmember whose district will be affected, the ultimate decisions on the Jerome Avenue rezoning will primarily be shaped by Gibson and Cabrera. In addition, the Speaker of the City Council (now Corey Johnson) and the chair of the Land Use Committee (now Rafael Salamanca, who City Limits recently profiled) arguably bear the most significant power to shape the Council’s overall land use priorities.
Still, the chair of the zoning subcommittee plays an important part. He or she works close to the ground, able to press forward certain priorities, and can serve as guidance to any councilmember grappling with rezoning proposals in their district.
“The Zoning chair has more than enough room to find their issues and stress the importance of those issues to developers, so they know where to start the conversation,” said Councilmember Donovan Richards, the chair of that subcommittee during de Blasio’s first term, in an e-mail to City Limits. “In my case, having developers work with community-based organizations to secure local hiring for residents was at the top of the list. But it’s always a delicate dance balancing the needs of every individual community with the needs of the city at large.”
As Moya takes the helm, he’ll have a chance to influence upcoming rezoning proposals with his own concerns.
‘Decent Record’ in Assembly
Moya, who represents Corona, LeFrak City and East Elmhurst, comes from the state Assembly, where he served for six years. The native of Corona was the first Ecuadorian American to be elected to public office in the country, and his biography on the Council’s website touts his record in the state legislature passing legislation to protect workers, including construction workers, and to help immigrants. He served on the Assembly’s Housing, Energy and Labor committees, among others.
While he was not the primary co-sponsor of any housing legislation during his six years on the Assembly, he was one of many sponsors on Assembly bills in 2011 and 2015 that would have strengthened rent regulation by closing current loopholes in the law, including ending vacancy decontrol and limiting the rent increases permitted as a result of major capital improvements, among other significant changes. (Both bills were blocked by the State Senate, where Republicans rule in partnership with the Independent Democratic Conference led by Sen. Jeff Klein.)
Moya was endorsed by TenantsPAC both in his 2010 run for the Assembly and in his 2017 run for the City Council; in both cases he was running against former pol Hiram Monserrate, who has convictions for violence against his girlfriend and for corruption and who in 2009 participated in a power coup that some advocates regard as having effectively prevented a vote on a bill to repeal vacancy decontrol, a mechanism through which certain rent-regulated apartments are de-regulated.
“He had a decent record in the Assembly and, faced with the choice of him and Hiram Monserrate, it was a no-brainer [for] our board,” says Michael McKee of TenantsPAC.
(Monserrate, for his part, says he’s always been a supporter of rent regulations and repealing vacancy decontrol and did intend to try to bring the repealer of vacancy decontrol to a vote. He also points to his record fighting against the rent increases provided to landlords for major capital improvements and against landlord abuse, advocating to the Rent Guidelines Board against rent increases, and sponsoring laws to protect tenants.)*
A City Limits analysis found that about $5,775 (or 4 percent) of Moya’s total 2017 campaign donations were from the real-estate industry. Compared with other councilmembers in neighborhoods targeted for a rezoning, Moya’s real-estate funds are on the modest side.
Local land-use issues are not really the purview of the state legislature. “The issues that [Moya] has tackled around land use are limited, because of the short time he’s been in the Council,” says Javier Valdes, the co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an organization that fights for immigrants and working-class New Yorkers and has played an active role in the city’s rezoning conversations.
That said, Moya has weighed in on some land-use issues in his district, ranging from new sports fields to overcrowding to the massive redevelopment project in Willets Point.
Asked why he wanted to become chair of the Zoning Subcommittee, Moya stressed his Corona roots and his concern about overdevelopment in his own neighborhood. Queens Community Districts 3 and 4, which overlap with Moya’s district and include Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona, rank as the two districts with the most severe rates of residential overcrowding.
Corona has not been the subject of an upzoning by the Bloomberg administration or the de Blasio administration. In fact, significant parts of North Corona and East Elmhurst were downzoned to protect neighborhood character under Mayor Bloomberg, though this did not stop overcrowding as families continued to settle in these neighborhoods. In fact, pro-development advocates say that downzonings tend to worsen overcrowding by limiting the supply of new housing.
But Moya says privately initiated rezonings by developers are contributing to the overcrowding in South Corona. He says he’s seen one- to two-family homes get knocked down and replaced with 25-unit apartment buildings next door to his own home. In 2016, Moya along with State Senator Jose Peralta and Representative Joseph Crowley, called on the city to look into a downzoning of South Corona in order to limit overcrowding in schools and reduce infrastructure stress. Currently, his office is working with local advocates to conduct independent research of the area.
If a zoning change is in the offing for the area, Moya indicates it will just be one part of the help the neighborhood needs. “Zoning isn’t planning,” he says. “There is no affordable housing coming to South Corona. We’re not building more schools. We have one of the most crowded school districts in the city of New York. There’s an infrastructure problem here as well,” he tells City Limits.
Moya also stressed the unique conditions of each neighborhood.
“When we’re talking about upzoning, we should really take it on a case by case basis, and I think …that’s why I wanted this role, because I’ve been fighting for this my entire life—I’m a neighborhood guy. I bought the house I grew up in.”
Moya says he does recognize the city’s need for affordable housing, and that with each de Blasio rezoning there will be complex factors to take into account. On the city’s proposed Jerome Avenue rezoning, which his subcommittee is currently considering, “We have to look at this and negotiate carefully with the city because we want to make sure that …the people who are building [the housing] are getting good-paying jobs …and then the people who are servicing those buildings are going to get good-paying jobs as well.”
As for the rent levels of the housing created by rezonings, “neighborhoods vary in terms of income levels and it shouldn’t be this blanket approach on how we are looking at what’s ‘affordable,'” he says.
Affordability at Willets Point
Moya is not just a downzoning guy. He’s been also involved in significant redevelopment efforts, including negotiations around the massive Willets Point project and the affordability levels of the housing there.
The effort to redevelop Willets Point launched long before Moya had a say in it. In the early 2000s, the Bloomberg administration began drafting plans for the area, which lies between Citi Field and Flushing Creek north of Flushing Meadows Park and, nicknamed “the Iron Triangle,” is known for its auto-repair shops and junk yards.
The city’s plans have now changed multiple times: In 2008, a deal negotiated by then-Councilmember Monserrate included offices, stores, a hotel, a convention center, open space and roughly 5,500 units of housing, with about a third income-targeted. All of this would have occurred east of 126th Street.
Later, while Moya was in the Assembly, then-Councilmember Julissa Ferraras-Copeland accepted a proposal by Related Companies and Sterling Equities, the owner of the Mets, for the first phase of a revised development scheme, which mainly centered on the construction of a mega-mall on the Citi Field parking lot, which is west of 126th Street. That plan called for 2,500 apartments (of which again about a third would be income-targeted) to be developed east of 126th Street at a later phase.
But that deal, too, seemed doomed after a court judge found that the Citi Field parking lot, which was technically mapped as parkland, could not be converted to a mall without state legislation to “alienate” the parkland.
It was at this point in the saga that Moya ran for Council. Moya pledged that as councilmember he’d renegotiate the deal to include 100 percent affordable housing, including a third for families making below $25,000, local hiring for construction jobs and permanent jobs, and no mall, according to Gotham Gazette. He also put forth a vision for a public market for local venders and businesses and called for investments in Flushing Meadows Park. (Monserrate, his opponent, also said he opposed the mall and wanted 100 percent affordable housing in Willets Point.)
On February 5, the New York Times reported that the newly elected councilmember and the de Blasio administration had reached a new deal with the developers to, for starters, build 1,100 units of completely affordable housing, with more units set aside for the lowest income brackets than in prior deals, including 18 percent of apartments for families making less than $25,770 or that are homeless. There’s also a 20 percent set-aside for seniors who are mostly low income and homeless.
The new deal also included a 450-seat school, open space and retail, but no mall. The developers are also going to participate in HireNYC, the city’s local hiring program, and aim for 25 percent participation of Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises.
In addition, the deal stipulated that a task force of community stakeholders, chaired by the Queens borough president and Moya, would be convened to work with Related and Sterling Equities to develop a plan for the remaining land allotted those developers. (A remaining 39 acres of Willets Point are yet to be assigned to a developer.)
“Willets Point has been 12 years of bad politics and broken promises,” Moya told the Times. “Now we can look to providing some great housing relief for a lot of people who need it.”
Asked by City Limits a week later to explain what he had meant by “bad politics and broken promises,” Moya said he preferred not to dwell on the past.
“What we have now is the ability to tout 100 percent affordable housing that was never done before,” he said, noting especially the 20 percent of units allocated for low-income seniors. “The fact that we reached that kind of agreement is historic and I think it’s a victory for the community and to have been able to negotiate that in less than a month is a huge achievement.”
Make the Road Action, the political arm of Make the Road New York, endorsed Moya as well as his plan for Willets Point over the summer, and Valdes praised the recent deal in an interview with City Limits.
“The city understands there is a housing crunch and they are subsidizing heavily to get us to a good affordability number and that is a huge victory for our community,” Valdes says. “My hope is that that task force has the ability and the teeth to really help shape a long term vision.” Valdes says Moya had also shared with Make the Road that “his No. 1 priority and his No. 1 goal is to secure affordable housing for the community.”
Black Institute founder Bertha Lewis, a supporter of Monserrate, criticized both Moya and former councilmember Ferraras-Copeland, saying she still supported the 2008 plan negotiated by Monserrate, which she said was based on full community-input, included more affordable housing (1,900 units), a 850-seat school, and an agreement that the developer would pay for environmental clean-up, among other benefits. The selection and continued agreements with Related Companies and Sterling Equities constituted a sell-out of the community, she argued.
Moya’s new deal is only for the first six acres of a 62-acre site that may well include more affordable units and school seats, and the developer is, in fact, paying for the environmental clean-up of the six acres, according to the Economic Development Corporation. It’s not entirely clear how much the final plan for all 62 acres will differ from the original 2008 agreement, or what Related Companies and Sterling Equities will demand for their remaining portion of the project.
Soccer stadium supporter
Make the Road New York hasn’t always found itself on the same page as Moya. Valdes says that in 2013, his organization was also grappling with the proposed expansion of the USFA Tennis Center on two thirds of an acre in Flushing Meadows Park, and Major League Soccer’s consideration of up to 13 acres in the park for a soccer stadium.
Moya and some other local leaders indicated a willingness to consider the Tennis Center expansion in exchange for concessions like hiring union, investing in the upkeep of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and ensuring local residents could access the tennis center’s facilities. It’s also no secret that Moya was one of the biggest supporters of a soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows Park.
“With Major League Soccer looking to expand in New York City and a growing population addicted to the game, the time has come for a dedicated soccer stadium within the city. And there is no better place for it than in the park where you can find many coming together to play the world’s most beloved game: Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens,” wrote Moya and Councilmember Karen Koslowitz in a 2012 op-ed. They argued that Queens was the perfect location for a stadium because immigrant communities “form the backbone of the fan base” that a stadium would bring jobs, revenue and investment in local recreational facilities and programs.
“We were not on the same side on that issue because we had a difference of opinion about location,” says Valdes of the soccer stadium, but he believes Moya’s position had changed over time. “I think he understands that the soccer stadium could no longer be in the middle of the park.”
Indeed, Moya told City Limits that he’s not considering Flushing Meadows Corona Park for a stadium, and has no definite plans to place one in the Willets Point area, either.
“As the first person to advocate for a soccer stadium in the borough of Queens, it’s no secret that I have always supported the idea. Just as I have for the last five years, I will continue to explore all avenues that could make Queens the home of soccer in New York City,” he wrote in an e–mail to City Limits. “However, at this time no discussions have been had with me regarding a soccer stadium in Willets Point. My priority is creating my community task force and begin to engage in a real way with all the stakeholders at the table. As we move forward into the next phase of planning for Willets Point, I’m sure there will be an appropriate time to discuss the future of a stadium.”
But Geoffrey Croft, one of the city’s most adamant park defendants, is untrusting of Moya. “He showed time and time again his support for irresponsible commercial exploitation of public parks and a refusal to defend basic zoning principles while a state representative. I hope his new position in the Council allows him to see the light and adopt views on such matters that will protect proposed abuses in the future.”
He took issue with an earlier press release from Moya’s office which appeared to suggest Moya might pursue state legislation to allow the alienation of the Citifield parking lot—but Moya’s office told City Limits that that press release was poorly worded and that developing that parking lot was not part of his plan.
In any case, whether its affordability, local hiring, infrastructure investments or perhaps a love of sports, this coming year will reveal what kind of values Moya brings to the Zoning subcommittee, which in the coming weeks will deliver a vote on Jerome Avenue and this summer will deliberate the Inwood rezoning.
For now, it’s mostly a time of introductions—like that which took place between Marco Neiro and Moya at the Jerome Avenue hearing on February 7.
Neira is president of the Sunrise Cooperative, a group of auto-businesses from Willets Point that used city assistance to relocate businesses to a single facility in the Bronx, but prior to opening went bankrupt and was evicted; the Economic Development Corporation has so far resisted providing additional funding.
As Neira testified in front of Moya against the Jerome Avenue rezoning, he said he’d attempted to meet with the current councilmember for Willets Point but been unable to. He was, he said, anxious to touch base.
“Well Marco, I am the current councilmember,” Moya announced, to Neiro’s surprise. “So if you like, after this, you can come and get my information.”
*Correction: Amended after publication to clarify that Monserrate’s position on vacancy decontrol, though TenantsPAC says his participation in the 2009 Senate Coup prevented the vacancy decontrol bill from coming to the floor. Also amended with Monserrate’s response to TenantsPAC’s critique.