Amir Khfagy

The site in Jackson Heights is one of a few in the city where Target hopes to establish new ‘small format’ stores.

After an arduous series of hearings regarding developers Sun Equity Partners and Heskel Group’s controversial plan to open a new “small format” Target store in Jackson Heights, Queens, the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) voted 4-1 Tuesday in favor of the project, dealing a painful blow to a vocal coalition community groups who opposed the plan.

This vote will ultimately allow companies like Target to build anything they want unregulated in residential neighborhoods,”said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, a member of activist group Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU).. “When you think of who will be able to open up stores of this size, it’s not small, immigrant businesses; it’s big box stores. The decision now opens the way for big corporations to change the dynamic of communities across the city.”

The site in contention is currently zoned R6/C1-3, which caps the size of stores at 10,000 square feet and allows only for stores that cater specifically to local consumer needs not large department stores. The developers argued that the Target will not surpass 10,000 square feet limit because the store will be built mostly underground, thus not counting toward the total square footage of the store.

Opponents believe that by building the Target underground the developers are exploiting a loophole in the zoning resolution. “While I haven’t been able to personally review the BSA’s decision yet to understand its rationale for permitting the Target project to move forward, I can say that I believe all the residents, activists and elected officials who testified against this project articulated a sound argument,” said Council Member Francisco Moya in a statement. “My interpretation of the zoning regulations remains the same. It’s a mistake allowing organizations to use cellar space as a loophole to skirt zoning rules. Any interpretation of the zoning text that permits this loophole is ignoring the spirit of the regulation. As the chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, I’ll be looking into updating the zoning text to protect against this loophole.”

The BSA however, didn’t share that belief and found that the Target’s proposal perfectly in line with the current zoning. In testimony she delivered before she voted, BSA Vice Chair/Commissioner Shampa Chanda described Target not as a department store but as a variety store in line with the current zoning.
“Today, the Board of Standards and Appeals got it wrong,” said Paula Segal, senior attorney with Equitable Neighborhoods Practice at the Community Development Project. “The city cannot allow developers to bury big box stores underground to skirt the laws and regulations that protect communities in residential zoning districts from unchecked and harmful development; we will petition the court to step in and stop this unlawful development.”

Out of a body of five only one BSA board member, Nasr Sheta, disagreed with her colleagues, stating that she believed the zoning resolution should be interpreted to cover “anything included within the four walls of building, i.e. basements; thus making the proposed Target development illegal.”

After the decision, activists lambasted the BSA for not recognizing the will of the community. “Since 1916, the BSA has had the power to influence how the city implements its zoning code. Landlords and property owners from all over this city, come to this board to make a case for why they can sidestep zoning code. Non-developers rarely take cases to the BSA because the BSA is not designed for the community,” QNU said in a statement. “We walked into this knowing the system is not for us and we’re not stopping here. Just like we kept Amazon out of Queens, we will not let Target take over our beloved community. The fight continues.” They also went on to criticize the BSA for having close ties to real-estate and development interests. “When you look at the BSA, there is a long line of real-estate interests,” said Patricia Chou, of QNU. “Past chairs have gone on to work for developers and law firms that frequently go before the board”

In fact, two former Vice Chairs of BSA, Christopher Collins and Susan Hinkson, went on to serve as Executive VPs of Land Use at Capalino & Co., which has recently been embroiled in scandal evolving Mayor Bill De Blasio’s One New York PAC. Since 2004 the Municipal Art Society has advocated for greater transparency by the BSA and in 2017 the BSA was mandated to to release annual reports on its decisions. In 2018, out of 335 cases brought before them, 299 of them were approved.

For nearly three years QNU has led the opposition to Target and the developers. Its members argue that a big-box retailer like Target would harm neighboring small business as well as contribute to displacement.

Target, however, believes that they have made every effort to be good neighbors. “We’ve been serving neighborhoods throughout New York for more than 20 years, and our philosophy all along has been really simple: take care of our guests, take care of our team and be great neighbors in the communities we serve,”said Liz Hancock, a representative for Target. “That includes working with local organizations like the Queens Chamber of Commerce and civic leaders to understand local needs.”

Target has an ambitious plan to open 30 small-format stores per year and currently operates four in New York City alone. Another proposed location, in Astoria, has raised significant criticism from locals after it was announced that a beloved supermarket and gym would be forced to close to make way for Target.

Nearly 200 community members have submitted testimony in public hearings against the company. Along with Moya, Councilmember Daniel Dromm, State Senator Jessica Ramos, Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all have publicly stated their opposition to the project.

I’m deeply disappointed that there’s the possibility of us getting a Target in our community, especially as we know that the zoning on that lot is not zoned for department stores,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos. “That’s why I’m working very closely to protect our neighborhood from getting a store that, aside from having a reputation as bad employer and bringing poor paying jobs into the district, [could] also help accelerate gentrification.”

Despite the BSA decision, activists vowed to carry on their fight one neighborhood at a time.

Today’s decision says that Target can build whatever they want in this city,” says Chou. “The reason we have so much support from community groups across the city is because people understand that it’s not just about one site but it’s about the expansion of corporations like Target in our city”