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Queens City Council Member and Community Board Pursue Northern Boulevard Neighborhood Rezoning

City Council Members Julie Won, left, & Rafael Salamanca (photo: Emil Cohen/NYC Council)

Last week, the City Council rejected a proposed lot rezoning on Northern Boulevard in Woodside, Queens that would have replaced a dilapidated one-story restaurant with a shiny new two-storey auto dealership. Opponents of the rezoning, which included the local City Council Member, first-term Democrat Julie Won, made it clear that the last thing their community needs is another auto industry business that will add more cars, particularly large dangerous SUVs, to their streets, taking up valuable space that could otherwise benefit the neighborhood.

Instead, Won and others are now calling for a larger neighborhood rezoning to bring much-needed investments and infrastructure to the community including affordable housing, health care facilities, parks, schools, and more. “Our neighbors have made it clear that they no longer want auto-related uses on the corridor and seek more walkability, livability, and residential in an area where we have 2 schools and 5 places of faith,” Won tweeted on January 19, after the Council voted against the zoning application. “I stand with my community in their rejection of auto-related uses on the Northern Blvd corridor in favor of redevelopment that would address our local and citywide need for new affordable housing.”

Won is no stranger to rezoning battles in her short time in the Council. She led a tough negotiation over the $2 billion Innovation QNS project in her district, wrangling with developers to secure more affordable housing in the massive project. The final deal also included a slew of other community benefits including housing vouchers for unhoused people, a $2 million tenant legal defense fund, a new elementary school, investments in NYCHA, and more.

While that was negotiation over a private application by developers for a rezoning in need of City Council approval, Won is now pursuing a different kind of project.

Northern Boulevard stretches all the way from Queens Plaza in the west to East Norwich in Nassau County. It cuts through the heart of Council Member Won’s district 26, which spans Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City, Astoria, and Dutch Kills. In her district, areas along the boulevard are currently zoned for a mix of manufacturing, commercial, office, and residential uses, and have not seen a major rezoning in decades.

In September of last year, Community Board 2 in Queens voted to reject a zoning application by the owners of 58-02 Northern Boulevard, who wanted to open a Lincoln showroom at the long-abandoned site. Though opinion was divided among the board, with 17 members opposed to the zoning and 15 in favor, and the vote was merely advisory, the opponents had the crucial support of Council Member Won. The City Council tends to follow a member deference policy in local land use decisions, so when the rezoning came before the Council this month – even after being approved by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and the City Planning Commission – it was near-unanimously rejected. 

“When this application was brought to the local community board, our community made it clear that they no longer want auto-related uses on the Northern Boulevard corridor, and instead want a comprehensive, mixed-use approach to the corridor that includes the creation of affordable housing,” Won said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, when asked for more information about her approach to the rezonings. “I stand with my community and have always advocated for comprehensive city planning since taking office. Our community board has made the request for a neighborhood rezoning, which will be led by the Department of City Planning. A neighborhood rezoning differs from our current ULURP process because it prioritizes our community and ensures their voices are heard.”

At a January 5 hearing of the Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, Won said that her community no longer wants a “piecemeal” approach to land use in the district and that Community Board 2 had rejected any new auto-related uses along Northern Boulevard. And she cited traffic casualties to back up that point: 160 people injured and one killed along the boulevard corridor in just one year. In recent years, Northern Boulevard has even been called the “New Boulevard of Death” after the redesign of Queens Boulevard. 

In testimony after testimony at the zoning hearing, several community residents cited similar concerns about the project, that it would worsen street safety, contribute to carbon emissions, create more congestion and traffic, and eliminate a crucial resource since the lot is already zoned for housing. Those who supported the zoning, wanting to do away with the eyesore of the rundown restaurant, were in the minority as they sought to convince the Council to approve the application. 

Under then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city pursued several large neighborhood rezonings, some of which passed the City Council, such as those in East New York, East Harlem, and East Midtown, while others failed after years of analysis and debate. The goal was to encourage affordable housing creation while also bringing much-needed investments to communities across the city. There were rezonings of mixed-use corridors under de Blasio that could serve as models for Northern Boulevard including the Bay Street corridor on Staten Island, previously zoned for manufacturing uses, and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, which was replete with auto-related businesses and was rezoned to build more housing and include street safety improvements and other investments.

Mayor Eric Adams’ administration is also advancing initial major rezoning efforts. There are two currently going through the city’s land use process: around the four planned Metro-North train stations in Parkchester/Van Nest and Morris Park in the Bronx and along a stretch of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, which could be somewhat similar in scope to a potential Northern Boulevard rezoning. And the mayor announced two new ones at his State of the City speech on Thursday: in Midtown Manhattan and the North Shore of Staten Island.

Two crucial problems that the rezonings will address are the city’s affordable housing shortage and its current reliance on car-centric design in many neighborhoods that impacts everything from pedestrian safety to access to public space and mass transit.  

“We received the Community Board’s request and are always willing to speak with elected officials and community members about opportunities to create much-needed new housing,” said Joe Marvilli, a spokesperson for the Department of Community Planning, about the proposed Northern Boulevard neighborhood rezoning. “New York City’s severe housing shortage is driving the affordable housing crisis, and every neighborhood needs to do its part to help.”

The request marks the beginning of a lengthy and laborious planning process that could take years to come to fruition. But community leaders say it is necessary to plan for the future of western Queens.

Danielle Brecker, chair of Community Board 2, in fact voted for the Lincoln dealership rezoning application, which would have created union jobs while replacing a blighted building that serves no purpose. But, she understands why the community board voted against it and is supportive of the calls for a comprehensive plan for Northern Boulevard. “We would just like a little more of a plan for that area and what we could do,” she said in a phone interview. “Basically community planning. How do we have housing and parks and schools and the things that we need in the community instead of another car dealership?” 

The community board has already created a task force that is set to meet next month to begin figuring out the best path forward, which Brecker said should begin with an independent land use consultant to advise them. “What I’m sort of hoping for for the first step is some community planning with a consultant and then we go from there,” she said. 

“We have a housing shortage. We have a large shelter population. There's no need to take residential land for this,” said Laura Shepard, a member of Community Board 2’s transportation committee who advanced the motion to reject the Lincoln dealership. Shepard said she wants to see “more affordable housing, more green space, mixed use areas, small businesses, even green industry, tech” and health facilities come to the community through a new rezoning. 

“Basically what we want to see is this transformation from this Boulevard of Death surrounded by all these car dealerships to a livable, walkable, affordable neighborhood,” she added. 

A former City Planning official said the Northern Boulevard corridor does offer a great opportunity for a rezoning, particularly if DCP, the local Council member, and community board are all aligned in shared interests. Parts of Northern Boulevard were always under consideration in the larger conversation around rezoning in Long Island City, the official said. The Dutch Kills rezoning, approved in 2008, touched on Northern Boulevard on its eastern boundary.  

But, the former official, who wished to speak anonymously, warned that a major rezoning could take years to accomplish and could delay other individual projects that require a spot rezoning.

They also noted that individual rezonings could still accomplish similar goals when it comes to housing determined by the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) policy, since Council members can negotiate on an individual basis about additional affordability on top of MIH as opposed to a neighborhood rezoning, which would set a uniform MIH standard for the entire area. They did also note, though, that a city-sponsored rezoning gives communities a seat at the table that they wouldn’t otherwise be afforded. 

“I think that there's a lot of opportunity to use this moment to create something better for the people that live on and around Northern Boulevard,” said Émilia Decaudin, a Sunnyside resident and Democratic District Leader from Assembly District 37, which overlaps with Won’s district. Decaudin said the area requires a comprehensive reanalysis of land use and could benefit from a rezoning that will make it a more attractive place for people to live, particularly since it is closely situated to mass transit connections.

“The transit line that goes through there is so underutilized,” she said of the M and R subways. “The MTA needs new ridership, and with the upcoming bus redesign, suddenly you can get more transit-accessible. So I think there's a lot of opportunity there.”

Decaudin echoed other supporters of the rezoning in noting that a City Planning-led rezoning will be more beneficial than those proposed by private developers “because the city's in a position to evaluate what the community actually needs better than any individual developer.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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