There are several public offices in play in the June 23rd primary elections, and in Queens, the borough’s estimated 2.2 million residents will see the first primary for borough president since 2014.
Former Queens Borough President Melinda Katz won a special election for Queens District Attorney last year and started her position in January. The interim Queens borough president, Sharon Lee, has been serving since then.
In January, Mayor de Blasio called a nonpartisan special election on March 24th to temporarily fill the borough presidency; that would have been followed by a primary in June and a general election in November to fill the remainder of Katz’s term, which ends December 31, 2021. That March vote was postponed in light of the pandemic. At the height of the novel Coronavirus crisis, Queens was the epicenter of the virus in the city.
Originally, both the special election and the primary would have been held on June 23, but Gov. Cuomo in April cancelled the special election. As a result, on June 23rd, the primary election will decide which candidate will end up on November’s general elections ballot for the final vote. Whoever is elected will not take office until January 2021.
While the borough presidency is not as powerful as it once was when the BPs had votes on the seven-member board of estimate that effectively ran the city, it still does have an important advisory role on land-use policy. And development is a major issue across Queens.
Like many parts of the city, Queens has seen its share of development, such as the seemingly overnight transformation of industrial Long Island City waterfront district to a zone of tall buildings and luxury housing. In the South Jamaica neighborhood, a transit hub has seen hotel development, new mixed-income housing and improvements to public parks and spaces. And further south in the Rockaways, five years after Hurricane Sandy had devastated the area, the neighborhood saw a city-initiated rezoning of 23 blocks which included infrastructure improvements, 3,100 affordable housing units and commercial development as well as new and improved public spaces.
Now, new projects await. After five years of planning, Amtrak and the de Blasio administration released the Sunnyside Master Plan in March, outlining a massive, $14 billion dollar framework that will guide the future development for affordable homes, jobs, transportation, social infrastructure and open space on a deck that will cantilever above Amtrak’s Sunnyside Yard’s property.
Another development project in Flushing is slated to create a 29-acre waterfront special district for nine buildings, including 1,725 new apartments, a hotel, a new road system, public open space on the waterfront, commercial space for retail and offices and a community center.
Both are contentious plans for their respective communities where some community groups want to see transparency and a genuine community engagement process.
The next Queens Borough President will have to face these land-use actions and more as the city’s economy begins to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The five candidates contending for the Queens borough presidency are current Councilmembers Donovan Richards and Costa Constantinides, former Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, Flushing resident and businessman Dao Yin and former NYPD sergeant Anthony Miranda.
City Limits spoke with their respective campaigns and most of the candidates themselves to learn about their opinions on land use.
Crowley was the City Councilmember from 2009 to 2017 for District 30 which comprises Glendale, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood, and parts of Woodside and Woodhaven. In 2017, Robert Holden upset her re-election bid by 137 votes. Crowley’s time in City Council on land use items was spent largely improving park land and landmarking historical sites and neighborhood areas including the 2016 campaign to landmark the oldest bar in Queens, Neirs Tavern (The idea was rejected.) In 2019, Neirs Tavern was landmarked by Mayor de Blasio after it almost shut down due to a rent increase. Crowley said she pushed for building new schools when there was overcrowding in her district and was successful.
According to her campaign website, Crowley said the city has failed in building affordable housing for Queens residents: “Queens represents approximately 28 percent of the city’s overall population, but we’ve only received roughly 10 percent of the city’s new or preserved units under the last two administrations.” In her role as BP she wants to “leverage the borough president’s land-use powers to advance inclusionary zoning practices with greater set-asides for mixed-income housing units for low- and moderate-income households” and wants to work with City Hall and Albany to expand financing options for working- and middle-class homeowners.
Crowley is related to the former U.S. Congressman Joseph Crowley, vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus and Democratic Party chair in Queens county. Crowley lost his Congressional seat to U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in an upset victory by more than 4,000 votes.
Crowley says she firmly stands against major rezoning, public or large-scale private, in Queens without community input. “Land in this borough is one of our most precious resources, so the public has a right to understand — and have a say in — the full impact of any proposed rezoning before it can be approved. Community boards should weigh in, as well as the public in general and all other stakeholders. My biggest concerns of course involve the most important issues that a re-zoning might affect, such as transit and other infrastructure, local businesses affordable housing, and overall environmental impacts.”
On the Sunnyside Yards project, Crowley said Queens residents are looking for housing solutions and they are not interested in a megadevelopment. “I want to stress that I’m the only Queens Borough President candidate with a master’s in urban planning. That experience has me looking at the borough more holistically than any other candidate. More building developments can be nurtured across the entire borough to address our affordable housing needs as we build out better infrastructure,” she wrote in an email.
As Queens borough president, Crowley wrote, there will be opportunities to “win more infrastructure and development funding for our borough” and “build a smarter Queens that will address density, environmental concerns, affordable housing, jobs, mass-transit, and other infrastructure all at the same time.”
On Flushing waterfront development, Crowley punted, saying she would need more specifics from the community on the plan since it was approved by Community Board 7 but rejected by the interim borough president.
Richards, who has secured the backing of the Queens Democratic Party, represents District 31 in the City Council which comprises Arverne, Brookville, Edgemere, Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Rosedale and Springfield Gardens neighborhoods in Queens. If he won, Richards would be the first Black male to be elected to the borough president’s office.
Richards is not shy about supporting major land use development — he spearheaded the 2017 Far Rockaway rezoning — but he told City Limits in an phone interview this week that he only supports plans that are equitable, create affordable housing and involve genuine community engagement, especially now when the city will face an economic downturn in a post-Coronavirus city.
“A lot of communities will have to wait many years … for the budget to pick up to really get the affordable housing built in their community. [Far Rockaway] had locked in the financing and everything else so we feel like we’re light years ahead of where other communities are, but there’s going to be the challenges,” said Richards. “You think about Sunnyside yards, the [former] Amazon site. These developments are in a period where we’re talking about the need to make sure we’re building more deep, affordable housing, and there are going to be an immense amount of challenges.”
Richards says if the city is not able to close the budget gap through federal and state funding, affordable housing programs could see further cuts. “We’re in a tough spot and anybody who thinks we’re not, is misreading where we’re at. So we’re going to have to be able to drive these bargains and not at the expense of the community. I don’t even see how you could do luxury housing in a market where people are in a neutral market.”
On large development projects, like Sunnyside Yards, the Flushing waterfront project and the former Amazon site in Long Island City, Richards says his position depends on the benefits to the community. “My stance on any development that’s happening [is] until there is a tangible conversation around affordability, until we hear what the local benefits are, the benefits on jobs–Did we reach a local hiring agreement? What is the community-based space for local organizations? [What are] the things a local business can take advantage of?–I will never sign my name onto something before I see tangible agreements surrounding the systematic issues that plague a lot of communities,” said Richards.
He says all three development projects need to be “flushed out with details”–the Flushing plan, which is hurtling toward approval, already is–so the community can have input in what is being developed and how to mitigate impacts like displacement. For example, Richards wants to expand the Right to Counsel program, which provides legal counseling for tenants facing evictions, in the borough. His biggest concern for evictions is undocumented residents who may not have a lease agreement and are at the highest risk for harassment and eviction.
“The devil is in the details. What does that affordability look like? Is it based on a low income? Moderate? Higher moderate income? So we need to make sure that we’re striking that right balance. And most importantly, the community must have a seat at the table.”
Constantinides represents District 22 which comprises Astoria, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Woodside neighborhoods. His district was hardest hit during the Coronavirus epidemic. Constantinides and his wife both were diagnosed and recovered from COVID-19. One of largest issues for his campaign is to create more hospitals and health care centers in Queens since the entire state has seen more than 40 hospitals shuttered since 2000.
On land use, Constantinides sees the borough president’s role as an advocate for affordable housing, job creation with living wages and job safety. He gave the example of the 2014 Astoria Cove project, which has been delayed due to finances, but where the rezoning mandates union labor and what at the time of its approval was the largest set-aside for affordable housing.
“The borough president has an active, influential voice when it comes to land use. I’m going to make it clear on Day One that any major land-use decision must have a labor component, because the people building properties should be able to afford to live in them. For the last few decades, we’ve been on a race to the bottom when it comes to labor,” wrote Constantinides in an email to City Limits. “And any residential rezoning on public land must be 100 percent true affordable housing — otherwise I will oppose it.
Constantinides continued to write that the city had historically distributed public land without meeting the needs of the surrounding community. As borough president, he says,t he would be able to approach rezonings with innovative and forward thinking policies. “The borough president should drive a hard bargain on private developments to ensure developers are true community partners. While MIH was historic, we should consider it just a tool and not the cure-all for rezoning. We have to look at the power and effectiveness of community land trusts, especially in environmental justice neighborhoods.”
On the Sunnyside Yards project, Constantinides wrote, the focus should be on affordable housing and helping small businesses that “languished during the pandemic before we pool all our resources into decking over a railyard.” On the Flushing waterfront development, he said the entire project as proposed has been a “bad deal for Flushing and the entire borough” because it lacked the type of affordable housing the community needs and there was no investment into Flushing Creek or guarantees of union labor, he wrote in the email, “Real estate developers have poured so many resources in this project to only get more luxury housing we don’t need. Instead, we need to find opportunities for community-driven projects on this site. That’s the only way we can get a labor guarantee, investment in the creek and surrounding infrastructure, and true affordable housing.”
Dao Yin, who has a background in corporate finance and is a Flushing resident, separates himself from his contenders as an anti-establishment candidate. He filed a lawsuit against the city earlier this year when Cuomo cancelled the special election because it would delay the Borough President from beginning his or her duties until January 2021 and Queens residents issues would be handled by an unelected interim borough president. The suit failed.
If Yin won, he would be the first Asian to be elected to the borough president’s office.
Yin supports the Sunnyside Yards project, the Flushing waterfront development and the development of the former Amazon site, known as Anable Basin. He said the Sunnyside Yards project was “ambitious and promising.” But he adds: “While this project appears externally [great], we must ensure it does not become a financial nightmare for the city, because the plan predicts $14 billion expense accrued over the entire construction. Moreover the current plan did not provide much explanation as to where the bonds would have come from. It’s not so transparent.”
He also wants to see the Flushing waterfront development project move forward because it will compliment Downtown Flushing’s “thriving business center.” But he would like to see more careful planning to ensure Flushing residents are not displaced.
Yin says the best way to avoid displacement is to take away tax credits from developers: Instead, “tax credits should be given to low- and middle-income families nearby to avoid rent spikes.” He says the main reason behind his support for development is the creation of jobs. It is the number one reason he supported the Amazon deal because in the economic crisis like the city will face due to the Coronavirus epidemic, those Amazon jobs would have helped in bringing the economy back. Yin said his biggest concern with the Amazon project was weak negotiation, transparency and community engagement.
“New housing projects, in Queens and in the city as well, they just cater to the rich and the super rich,” he says. “This is not by mistake. It is by design and all political establishments, including my current opponents, have failed the people of Queens.”
Miranda, a retired NYPD sergeant and now a police reform advocate who leads the National Latino Officers Association would be the first Latino elected to the Queens borough president’s office.
Miranda told City Limits in a phone interview that development in the borough is out of control and his first order of business will be to ask for a moratorium on luxury housing.
“There needs to be a feasibility study about the impact it has on the limited resources for every particular community that they’re anticipating building it right now,” he says of luxury housing. Miranda is concerned about “the strain on local resources, going from the sewage system to garbage, to the educational schools that are available to the families that are going in there to all the services that a community would generally provide, including emergency response and the additional strain of people, personnel going to hospitals and needing medical care.”
Miranda says he does not support any large developments, including the Sunnyside Yards project and Flushing waterfront project, and did not support the Amazon deal. He said community engagement is an important strategy that is lacking in the city. “I think that outreach where people say that they hold hearings–hearings don’t necessarily reach everybody because when you’re working late hours or you’re working long hours and you’re taking your kids to school and you’re doing the things that you normally have to do just to take care of life, you don’t have the ability to attend these hearings that they have, or these forums.”
He said the Queens Borough president’s role is to ensure those families are not being left out of the equation and considers himself the right person for the role because he is outside the scope of established politics. He also believes community boards with members who have conflict of interests, such as a community board member with a job in real estate who also sits on the land use committee, should not be allowed.
Miranda says displacement and gentrification in the borough have been caused by elected officials who did not speak up when it was crucial and relevant. “I want to hold you accountable for your lack of integrity, your lack of foresight, to see the impact that it would have on all of Queens. Cause when you allow discrimination to go on and displacement and gentrification in different areas to go on and other communities, it has an impact in all of Queens, right?”