Gotham Gazette Sun, 17 Jan 2021 22:11:46 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) What's The [Data] Point? 29, The Debate Over the Special Flushing Waterfront District whats the data point

Special Flushing Waterfront District development rendering

What's The [Data] Point? 29, The Debate Over the Special Flushing Waterfront District [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

The proposed Special Flushing Waterfront District has become the latest battle in the ongoing war over development in New York City. The proposal, which now sits with the City Council after being passed by the City Planning Commission, is for a large swath of Flushing and would house new condos, apartments for rent, hotels, shopping, and more, as well as new green space and other aspects. To discuss the project, we were joined on the show by Helen Lee of the team of developers who crafted it, and by John Choe, a local activist who is opposed to it.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

What's The [DATA] Point? · Episode 99: 29 acres, the Flushing Waterfront episode

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

What's The [Data] Point? 29, The Debate Over the Special Flushing Waterfront District Wed, 02 Dec 2020 06:00:00 +0000
The Tragedy of Wealth Inequality in the City’s Asian-American Community, and What To Do About It Flushing celebration mayor's office

A celebration in Flushing, Queens (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

When I first entered office in 2013, I joined other elected officials in the time-honored tradition of attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Most of the time, these were for hotels, fancy restaurants, and even luxury condos.

Hard-hat and shovel in hand, I said the usual things about economic growth and prosperity that these projects would hopefully bring to Flushing, and we were all rewarded for this “insight” by the media.

This was the status quo—enabling private industries to launder their reputations through our offices while our constituents received corporate giveaways, free dinners, and other privately-subsidized handouts. Win-win, right?

But over time, it became impossible to ignore that the fulfillment of these promises of economic growth and prosperity was plunging large swaths of people into poverty. As more and more luxury condos began construction, we saw more and more homelessness in the streets. As more and more mega-malls neared completion, more and more elderly were digging for scraps in the trash.

Flushing is truly a tale of two cities: limitless opulence and wealth just blocks away from make-shift homes for the homeless.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that Asian-Americans lead all racial groups in wealth inequality. Those at the top earn nearly ten times more than those at the bottom – the highest among all ethnicities. This is why I am now calling on all Asian-American elected officials and candidates to join me in addressing wealth inequality.

Since my first election, there have been at least three life-altering experiences for me on this topic. These cases compelled me to focus entirely on the economic trauma now affecting the most marginalized people, many of Asian immigrant descent, in my district.

The first incident was in 2014. An older gentleman, early seventies with no family, entered my office using a walker. He could barely see due to his cataracts. He told me that he rode a casino bus every day to collect a $15-$20 voucher, and used that money to pay rent. He needed proof of residence to qualify for benefits, but lived in an illegally converted 1-bedroom apartment with five other seniors. How could this be?

The second took place the same year. We held an affordable housing town hall in the basement of a church, expecting 100 people at most—and nearly 1,200 came. Mostly seniors and older adults, many of them waited several hours before even entering. How could this be?

And lastly, in 2017, there was the tragic life and death of a migrant sex-worker named Yang Song. She was targeted and harassed for months, all because she tried to report being assaulted and raped by undercover police officers. They made her life a living hell until, one day, the police raided her massage parlor and she died fleeing from her abusers. A local real estate developer mocked her death on Facebook as just another “hooker splattering.” How could this be?

This economic trauma and dehumanization is directly linked to soaring wealth inequality. How else can we justify children starving in our own backyard as we enjoy their favorite dim sum? How else can we justify walking past the scores of homeless folks and crowded food lines while rushing off to brunch?

We live under a myth that pathologizes the poor and glorifies the rich. When you are poor, there is something inherently “bad” about you—fundamentally deficient. And when you’re rich, you’re a hard worker, a “good person” entitled to all the world can offer.

But it’s our system that sustains wealth inequality to such an extreme degree. It’s our system that rewards leaders for their short-termism, extractivism, and exploitation to advance “economic priorities.”

Case in point: a group of real-estate developers has proposed a 3 million-square-foot luxury development in Flushing, the Special Flushing Waterfront District. The threat of displacement for thousands of working class people is all too real. Yet not one local politician has joined me in speaking out against this travesty.

I know that for some it is easier to turn to the wealthy for handouts disguised as solutions, rather than hold them accountable for the worst economic divide among all groups.

But as Asian-American leaders we must come to terms with the crises of our times. We need to fight for tax justice and a fair, equitable relationship between business leaders and our community.

Our current tax codes reward big real estate developers. They are incentivized to raise and transfer tax-free capital, creating artificial community “value” while displacing our most vulnerable residents.

We need to progressively tax real wealth, inheritance, and capital gain to the point that it no longer makes sense for private investors to simply hoard vast fortunes. Make it more viable to re-circulate their money into local economies, instead of stockpiling it for their families to roll over into tax-free capital investments—which only further inequality.

Lastly, every mega-project must start with a labor agreement, a minimum of 25% real affordable housing, and a public environmental review.

The next time you venture down Roosevelt Avenue and Main Street -- or the thoroughfares in your neighborhood -- don’t look away from the homeless seniors, day laborers, and migrant workers. Let their suffering open your mind and heart, and make you care enough to change the conditions that led them there.

If you’re able to pass them without a second thought, I hope you enjoy your brunch.

Ron Kim is a member of the New York State Assembly from Flushing, Queens and adjunct professor at Cornell University. On Twitter @rontkim.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

The Tragedy of Wealth Inequality in the City’s Asian-American Community, and What To Do About It Sun, 29 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Green Gentrification and Environmental Racism in Flushing flushing creek site citi field view sfwd

One part of the Special Flushing Waterfront District site

Flushing residents, local environmental organizations, and nonprofit groups have long despaired over Flushing Creek. The waterway has been a symbol of environmental racism and community disinvestment for many years; it frequently runs cloudy and sulphurous with industrial waste and sewage overflow.

In 2016, local environmental organizations Guardians of Flushing Bay and the Riverkeeper released a vision plan for an integrated and ecologically healthy waterfront. Activists, community residents, and the Flushing Rezoning Community Alliance also published a plan that prioritized the needs of existing residents and discussed safeguards against displacement. Both of these plans were created after many representative community meetings and envisioned a neighborhood free from air and noise pollution, with a clean creek and community resources like senior centers and public parks. 

What Flushing residents may receive instead is a massive luxury development proposal driven by the monetary interests of real estate developers F&T Group, United Construction and Development Group Inc, and Young Nian Group. The Special Flushing Waterfront District would be a huge mixed-use development hosting over 1,700 luxury condos, a hotel, retail spaces, and a privately-managed “public” waterfront. None of the community resources supported by locals in previous plans have been incorporated into the proposal. Moreover, the imagined “public” waterfront has the authority to limit access to locals. 

Familiar Promises Waiting to be Broken Once More
In 2013, City Council Member Peter Koo approved F&T Group’s bid to purchase Municipal Parking Lot 1 for a severely discounted price. Koo also supported a number of tax benefits and special permits that loosened height restrictions and setback regulations (the minimum required horizontal distance between the sides of a structure from the property line). In return, F&T agreed to build affordable housing units and space for a YMCA in the proposed Flushing Commons, which was built on top of Municipal Parking Lot 1. 

Since 2013, F&T has completed Phase 1 of Flushing Commons, constructing two apartment buildings featuring prime office condominiums, luxury apartments, retail spaces, and a new 982-space parking garage. The promised YMCA, publicly accessible spaces, and affordable housing units are scheduled for construction in Phase II. Under the false pretense of community benefit, F&T has only intensified the problems of displacement and crowding in Flushing. In recent years, Flushing has lost many affordable housing units and rent stabilized units because of persistent rezoning and luxury development and existing units face continual threats.

Environmental Racism in Flushing
Like many low-income communities of color, residents of downtown Flushing must live with higher rates of air, water, and noise pollution than their whiter, wealthier neighbors. A 2019 Union of Concerned Scientists report states that "Asian American residents are exposed to twice as much PM2.5 pollution (fine, inhalable particles) as are white residents [in New York].” Furthermore, this type of pollution “is the largest environmental health risk factor in the United States, responsible for 63 percent of deaths from environmental causes (Tessum et al. 2019; Tessum, Hill, and Marshall 2014).” Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Better Buses Restart Plan noted that the intersection at Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing was the third busiest pedestrian intersection in the city. These traffic jams contribute to the noise and air pollution that harm the health of Flushing residents. 

"People cannot breathe anymore because of the numbers of cars [passing by] and construction being done everywhere," Jay Kim, a resident of 3733 College Point said. "During the Tangram House South construction, I would not dare to open the window even in the hot summer when I am cooking. From my kitchen window, industrial debris was coming in constantly…the outside looked hazy with dust."

With Flushing intersecting numerous flight paths to LaGuardia airport, the rise of condominiums like Flushing Commons and the proposed Special Flushing Waterfront District project stand in direct violation of Federal Aviation Administration height restrictions. This is yet another way the rezoning proposal is a mismatch for the community. These restrictions exist to protect the quality of human lives, yet developers like F&T have attempted to sidestep the FAA  height restrictions with waivers on numerous occasions in hopes of building higher towers. "Planes fly very close to the ground in Downtown Flushing…and make a lot of noise. I cannot even open the door in the summer,” Kim said. 

Flushing locals hope that the planned development will not cause them to relive the nightmare they endured in 2016 when Sky View Mall was constructed. During that time, nearby NYCHA Bland Houses public housing communities suffered from environmental harassment and rat infestations. Tenants reported giant rats in the courtyards, garbage disposal rooms, and hallways. Enduring the seemingly endless cycles of construction in an already polluted environment is an ongoing source of indignity and pain.

“Where is the remedy?” Kim asked. “Why do we need to suffer the consequences of someone's greed? When the rezoning is approved and construction starts, it will be even worse than before considering the magnitude of the construction."

In addition to environmental pollution, Flushing Hospital’s 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment found that effects of poverty continued to impact their patients’ health. In short, Flushing residents face health impacts from pollution related to environmental racism and poverty as these systems of oppression reinforce and escalate each other’s consequences. 

Green Gentrification and Displacement
This rezoning and development are embedded in economic structures and personal choices that promote money-making condominium developments without regard for local residents. Particularly in communities already suffering environmental injustices, luxury housing will lead to economic displacement. In an interview, Assistant Professor Lara Cushing at U.C. Los Angeles noted that “racism doesn’t only operate at an interpersonal level. Our society was set up with laws and zoning practices that maintain segregation. The whole system is not designed to bring about equality.”

The developers promise to bring “environmental cleanup to a vacant, blighted parcel of land” but do not incorporate provisions to protect existing residents from being displaced by the increased property values that come hand in hand with amenities like a usable waterfront. Urban greening and climate resilience projects play a pivotal role in the history of displacement in New York City. A 2019 research study found that the establishment of new greenways near historically disinvested neighborhoods – like the Flushing waterfront – are particularly strong predictors of gentrification. The authors say that parks can “trigger” and “foster” displacement. 

Audrey Cho, a junior at local high school Townsend Harris asked, “How could one expect luxury developments to benefit a community where nearly 60% of residents are rent burdened? How will commercial properties serve a town where countless are waiting for food each week, businesses are shutting down, and families are facing eviction?”

A Better Flushing for All
The risk of ‘green gentrification’ causing displacement and health issues more than justifies careful development planning with close community coordination. However, this is not what has happened. A negative declaration on the Environmental Assessment Statement (EAS) prevented the additional public hearings that are required for a final environmental impact statement.

Rushing this rezoning and development will have consequences for Flushing residents’ health and environment. Real questions about the development plan remain insufficiently answered. For example, the EAS includes plans to remediate soil for the construction areas. However, the site is not continuous, the U-Haul building sits between proposed developments. Longtime resident and community activist Bobby Nathan sums up the community fear that, “if the U-Haul site is not cleaned up, it will re-contaminate both sites. It's just a waste of time and money.”

Residents ask why they should endure the construction of apartments they cannot afford or support the remediation of a park they may not have full access to. Downtown Flushing communities, composed primarily of immigrants with limited English proficiency and low-income people of color, are being forced to bear the burden of this rezoning project without being allowed to provide any input. This proposal imposes a solution rooted in environmental racism onto a community already facing negative health impacts from their polluted environment. 

Flushing residents desperately want a clean creek and usable waterfront. However, this already-vulnerable community should not accept displacement as the price they must pay for this environment.

Zander Pellegrino, Seonae Byeon, and Jane Wang are volunteers with the Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance, a volunteer group of workers who have roots in Flushing and oppose the Special Flushing Waterfront District Rezoning. On Twitter @Flushing_ADA.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Green Gentrification and Environmental Racism in Flushing Tue, 24 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Letter to the Editor: Flushing Waterfront Follies sfwd current plot map

The current site of the proposed Special Flushing Waterfront District

To The Editor:

In “Separating Fact and Fiction About the Special Flushing Waterfront District,” published earlier this week and in part an apparent response to my criticism of the Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD) in these pages, the property owners and applicants of the SFWD make one fact crystal clear, and that is that the developers do not represent community interests.

The developers continue to exaggerate the magnanimity of the proposed open space and waterfront access, which are the primary public benefits of the SFWD given the paltry number of proposed affordable housing units.

In a recent study based on information provided by the developers’ environmental assessment statement, the Municipal Art Society (MAS) produced illustrations depicting minimal public space and a diminished pedestrian experience due to the massive building base walls of SFWD’s proposed towers.  Rather than the 6.6 acres of public open space as the developers claim, the MAS found the SFWD will create “just over three acres of new open space”.  Moreover, MAS concluded, “only 0.3 percent of the open space under the proposal is being provided voluntarily.”

The SFWD applicants’ disdain for advocates, who argue that private developers seeking relief from land use regulations should provide public benefit to the surrounding community, extends to elected officials. It is hard to ignore the developers’ sarcastic instruction to those who “want to advance more affordable housing” to contact City Council Member Francisco Moya. Moya, chair of the Zoning Subcommittee, was featured prominently in several articles admonishing the developers for not doing enough to address the city’s acute affordable housing crisis.

Moya and 11 of his colleagues clearly heard and agree with community concerns, as shown in an official statement issued the evening before a scheduled Zoning Subcommittee vote on the SFWD was postponed. The statement noted that the SFWD “ignores the real, urgent needs of the Flushing community” and approval of an “application without deep community benefits” would be “irresponsible” and “a grave mistake."

Rather than heed the advice of these elected officials, the developers wrote an opinion piece that sought to malign “the opposition,” including the MinKwon Center for Community Action, a nationally recognized, Flushing-based immigrant rights and social justice organization. The developers’ warning that the MinKwon Center is not “the town crier of Flushing,” however, fails to diminish the city-wide mobilizations its organizers helped to catalyze to counter the fiction that the proposed SFWD will benefit Flushing’s working class community.

Tarry Hum
Professor and Chair of the Urban Studies Department, Queens College, City University of New York. On Twitter @TarryHum.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Letter to the Editor: Flushing Waterfront Follies Thu, 19 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Separating Fact and Fiction About the Special Flushing Waterfront District sfwd rendering

Rendering of the Special Flushing Waterfront District

There are several myths and mischaracterizations about the Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD) that we as owners want to set the record straight about. Here are several key facts about the project.

SFWD does not provide an advantage to obtain building height.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have already provided Letters of No Objection to allow height increases for the Special Flushing Waterfront District. SFWD only provides a consolidation of approval processes. Rather than submitting to the Board of Standards and Appeals for this, special permit approval would be provided by the City Planning Commission as part of the SFWD Waterfront Certification process. FAA and Port Authority Letters of No Objection have to be provided for this administrative approval.

In the past 20 years, the dozen special permits for height granted in Downtown Flushing were all routinely provided upon submission of FAA and Port Authority Letters of No Objection.

There will be zero sanitary sewer discharge into Flushing Creek.
All sanitary sewer effluent will be piped directly to Tallman Island Treatment Plant in College Point. Some say other developments pollute Flushing, making it seem like SFWD will do the same, but that is provably false. 

SFWD provides comprehensive stormwater runoff mitigations to prevent shoreline erosion and provide prudent shoreline restoration techniques, such as: permeable pavers, green roofs, soft shoreline edges, and onsite stormwater retention before discharge into Flushing Creek. 

As-of-Right vs SFWD: The exact same buildable bulk.
The as-of-right development scenario can currently be built. SFWD is not needed to achieve maximum bulk. At least two of the sites have plans that demonstrate this, one already with New York City Department of Buildings-approved building plans, ready to proceed. Opposition makes it appear this is not the case and that residential units, commercial and retail space are all being incrementally added. 

Macedonia AME Church is not a victim.
The Macedonia AME Church was beneficially rezoned as part of the Municipal Lot #1 ULURP in 2010. That was an economic boost for them and they are an important stalwart in our community. Macedonia built 142 affordable housing units at their Macedonia Plaza site. We know Reverend Richard McEacheron and he voted for the Special Flushing Waterfront District as a member of Queens Community Board 7 and he testified in support of SFWD at the City Planning Commission and City Council hearings. There are no complaints from him or his congregation.

Community Support
At the recent City Council hearing, over 75% of the 100+ speakers were in favor of our project and its many merits. The Council also received more than 330 letters of support for the Special District from Flushing residents and business owners. The community clearly supports this project.

Queens Community Board 7 represents Flushing, among other neighborhoods. Minkwon Center may be vocal, but that does not make it the town crier for Flushing.  Minkwon representatives have never appeared at any Queens CB7 hearings prior to the Special Flushing Waterfront District or since. It has its own agenda and refuses to meet with representatives of SFWD.

SFWD is not designed to provide a solution for homelessness nor ensure union jobs. It is designed to provide a better urban experience and numerous community benefits, including:

-A new road network, vital to our community, to alleviate College Point Boulevard traffic and connect the Special Flushing Waterfront District to Downtown Flushing.

-A fully public waterfront promenade doubled in width to 40 feet and extended by more than 400 feet in length.

-Space for seniors, youth groups and community organizations.

-6.6 acres of public open space, whereas as-of-right development would bring only 3 acres.

-Design that will allow for small local storefronts and better pedestrian experiences on the street and waterfront.

-An ideal public-private partnership between the Department of City Planning and three developers, designed to prevent the construction of three "Skyview" developments.

The current proposal seeks enhanced zoning for only 10% of the overall project on a small lot to the north, also entirely on private land. The vast majority of the project has no change in zoning at all, including the area encompassing the new public road network that will alleviate traffic and grant direct access to the waterfront. There is no increase in bulk, except a small portion in the north to allow a 400-foot extension of the waterfront promenade and to provide some affordable housing units.

If you want to advance more affordable housing, then you should contact the Mayor, the President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), and City Council Member Francisco Moya. Insist on more affordable housing at Willets Point, which is public land. 

A defeat of the SFWD does not advance the affordable housing issue. Defeat will remove affordable housing from the sites completely, and all the benefits described above.

by Richard Siu of F&T Group; William Xu of United Construction & Development Group; and John Liang, Young Nian Group.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Separating Fact and Fiction About the Special Flushing Waterfront District Tue, 17 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
A Flushing Tragedy Underscores Acute Affordable Housing Crisis Flushing food line

A line for food in Flushing (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

Pedro Rodriguez posted a video to Facebook of a homeless man bent over and lifeless in his cardboard shelter made up of several boxes, with one serving as the shelter’s threshold where the elderly Asian man had neatly placed his shoes. Posted this past Saturday morning, Rodriguez’s video ended with Fire Department responders lifting the man’s torso and ascertaining he had died hours earlier. Rodriguez, who works at La Jornada, Flushing’s largest food pantry, noted a growing presence of homeless people on downtown Flushing’s Prince Street due to the coronavirus pandemic-induced economic and housing crises.

Just days earlier, the chair of the New York City Planning Commission, Marisa Lago, prefaced her vote to approve the highly controversial Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD) by congratulating the Queens Department of City Planning team and local property owners and developers for two decades of collaboration on a waterfront redevelopment proposal that will advance Flushing’s future and help the city recover.

On Monday, the New York City Council’s zoning subcommittee held a public hearing on the developers’ SFWD proposal to waive rules regulating building heights and waterfront access to permit the development of a 29-acre, mixed-use luxury residential and commercial enclave complete with a private street network.

The Special Flushing Waterfront District applicant, FRWA LLC, is comprised of three Chinese transnational developers – F & T Group, Young Nian LLC, and United Construction – and they argue their proposed 3 million square feet of new development will not lead to residential displacement because the waterfront is largely vacant. This view, however, fails to recognize the developers’ contributions to a speculative real estate market that threatens all forms of affordable housing in downtown Flushing.

A striking example is a modest, two-family residential property on Sanford Avenue that was pitched as a “prime investment opportunity” for condominium development and sold in May 2019 for $3.4 million.

flushing property hum

Private developers are loath to concede their projects facilitate (direct or indirect) displacement but it is especially egregious when city government planners and elected officials approve a massive, market-driven real estate development in Flushing (much less without a full environmental impact study and review) that will further jeopardize the neighborhood’s diminishing affordable housing stock, putting thousands of working-class residents at risk of homelessness.

There could be no more stark relief of the human toll of Flushing’s already acute affordable housing crisis than Rodriguez’s heartbreaking video. The Department of City Planning’s study of (pre-pandemic) downtown Flushing indicated a median household income of only $34,428. Last year, more than 84,000 applications were submitted to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for a chance to secure one of the 231 affordable units in OneFlushing. Recognizing this severe housing shortage, the Municipal Art Society’s report, Much Ado About Flushing, recommended “(T)he entire SFWD should be mapped as an MIH area,” thus mandating the inclusion of significant affordable housing in any redevelopment plan.

The pandemic-induced surge of people in a quarter-mile long queue for a bag of groceries at La Jornada was covered extensively by the local media. Heeding the advice of City Council Member Peter Koo, a FRWA LLC representative reached out to La Jornada to donate turkeys for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, and to set up a GoFundMe page titled, “HELP FOOD PANTRY IN CRISIS LaJornada & SFWDistrict,” which has, as of November 10, raised $36,088 of a $50,000 goal.

As much as these donations are needed, charity is not a sufficient response to systemic inequality and risk of hunger and homelessness. Rodriguez noted in his video that he was documenting “the first homeless dead of the season.” Is it really necessary for more of Flushing’s vulnerable populations to die in order to underscore the tragedy of an acute affordable housing crisis?

Tarry Hum is Professor and Chair of the Urban Studies Department, Queens College, City University of New York. On Twitter @TarryHum.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

A Flushing Tragedy Underscores Acute Affordable Housing Crisis Wed, 11 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Queens Deserves Better Than a Development Plan That Benefits Too Few arc slide1

Flushing Waterfront development rendering

When faced with a crisis, whether 9-11 or Hurricane Sandy, New York has always rebuilt. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic damage means that, now more than ever, we need to invest in our city. 

But that doesn’t mean that all development is created equal, or that all proposed projects should get a blank check under the guise of recovery. That is why we have a review process for developments seeking to benefit from city approvals – to weigh whose interests should be represented in deciding how to move forward.

The developers behind the plan for a new Special Flushing Waterfront District project, which is now before the City Council, have long claimed that their proposal to build up to 1,700 luxury housing units, over a million square feet of commercial space, and as many as 2,000 luxury hotel rooms will be good for Queens. Now they claim that their project will help Flushing bounce back from the economic consequences of the coronavirus. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our unions represent the building service and hospitality workers who would be most affected long-term by this project, and we know that as-is, it is not good for frontline workers, for Flushing residents, or for New York City. That is why we oppose the rezoning the developers seek, and why we hope that the City Council will deny the current project.

The pandemic and its economic effects have hit building service and hospitality hard. Thousands of essential workers in building services – cleaners, superintendents and security officers who are 32BJ SEIU members – have risked their health daily to protect the rest of us. And thousands of them have lost their jobs, with some still out of work. Over 80% of Hotel Trades Council (HTC) members are currently unemployed, relying on unemployment insurance, union benefits, and any cash reserves they have to get by. A significant percentage of those unemployed hotel workers live in Queens, and many of them are Flushing residents.  

Clearly New York needs more jobs. But real recovery and prosperity require creating jobs with prevailing wages and benefits, like our members have. Contrary to the developers’ assurances, the current version of the Special Flushing Waterfront District plan does not include any credible commitments to make the building service and hospitality jobs their project promises into good jobs that will sustain workers and families. Allowing a mega-project like this to advance without a meaningful guarantee that the working-class people who operate it every day will earn livable wages and be able to afford healthcare would be irresponsible, and a major disservice to New Yorkers.

This project also offers few meaningful benefits for Flushing residents who are struggling to afford housing. Of the residential units planned, as few as 75—roughly 4%—would be set aside for low-income people to rent. This is a drop in the bucket in a neighborhood where 76% of residents are renters, and where two-thirds of those renters are “rent burdened” – paying a too-large percentage of their income for rent.

Throughout the review process, the developers of the Special Flushing Waterfront District have said they will build a similarly sized development as-of-right if the rezoning fails. We reject the notion that this is a choice between bad options, and we encourage decision-makers to do the same. The developers have spent $1.7 million lobbying city government to approve the rezoning, so we know that it is valuable to them. The City Council should stand up for workers and Flushing residents and say no to the rezoning unless those residents will truly share in its gains.

Hit harder than most communities in the country by the COVID-19 pandemic, the last thing that Flushing needs are front-line jobs without standards that protect essential workers, or housing beyond the reach of the majority of people in the neighborhood. We are not against development. But bad development masquerading as recovery will only hurt us worse. Queens deserves better than the current Flushing rezoning plan, and so does our city.

Kyle Bragg is the President of 32BJ SEIU and Rich Maroko is the President of New York Hotel & Motels Trades Council. On Twitter @kyle32bj@32BJSEIU and @NYHTC.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Queens Deserves Better Than a Development Plan That Benefits Too Few Sun, 08 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Big Flushing Project Up Next in City Debate Over Development arc slide1

Flushing Waterfront development rendering

When the developers behind Industry City, a massive retail and manufacturing space, announced that they had pulled the plug on their plan to rezone a portion of their property on the Sunset Park waterfront in Brooklyn, community activists in Flushing, Queens celebrated. 

The proposed Special Flushing Waterfront District is a planned rezoning to usher in massive development along Flushing Creek, and is now being eyed by both proponents and critics as the next big New York City land use battle. The debate over the Flushing development hits on a number of persistent themes related to housing, development, gentrification, displacement, jobs, and more.

Given the defeat of the Industry City proposal, which had spurred fears of gentrification and displacement in a largely immigrant community, opponents of the Special Flushing Waterfront District appear to have some momentum on their side as the developer’s proposal works its way through the City Planning Commission and to the City Council. Politics in the city have turned decidedly against major development projects pushed by wealthy interests, most notably the aborted Amazon ‘HQ2’ plan for western Queens, which prefaced the Industry City outcome.

“Sunset Park set the tone that predatory rezoning is not acceptable, and communities should be in control,” said Seonae Byeon, the lead housing organizer of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, a tenant advocacy group and one of the most prominent opponents of the Flushing waterfront rezoning. “Whether you live in Brooklyn or Queens, racist rezoning shouldn't be happening in any neighborhoods.”

The proposed project in Flushing, which is itself home to large immigrant communities, would turn 29 acres of the waterfront into a 13-tower luxury complex with retail, hotel, and office spaces, plus over 1,700 residential apartments, 61 of which would have below-market rents deemed affordable.

The plan would also include a public waterfront walkway and outdoor open space. Other benefits cited by the developers — F&T Group, Young Nian Group and United Construction and Development Group, who have formed the consortium, FWRA LLC — include the creation of nearly 3,000 permanent jobs, with an additional 558 average construction workers per day during its building, and clean-up of Flushing Creek. While the project was originally estimated to generate $28 million in annual tax revenue to the city, the developers now say that new economic studies suggest the special waterfront district will generate $164 million in anticipated annual tax revenue.

flushing development site current status photo(view of the Flushing site as it currently stands)

To realize the developers’ goals, which include removing some zoning restrictions to raise the height of 11 of the proposed towers, they must seek approval from the city, which includes votes by the City Planning Commission, which passed it on Wednesday, and the City Council, as well as other advisory opinions.

But opponents argue the project would fast-track gentrification in the surrounding areas, devastating working-class immigrant residents through rising costs of living and housing displacement. And, more generally, critics argue that it is the wrong type of use of valuable real estate, which they say should have more community-focused purpose with designs by and for the people who live nearby now, with taking on the city’s affordability crisis front and center.

Both the Sunset Park and Flushing rezoning debates are the latest manifestations of the “Vision 2020” Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, which was conceptualized during the Bloomberg administration with the aim of revitalizing New York City’s waterways and waterfront areas. Although the Special Flushing Waterfront District is largely a privately-funded endeavor, public money has underwritten the project since it was originally conceived in 2010, when former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman’s Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation (FWC LDF) was granted a $1.5 million Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA) grant from the Department of State to plan for revitalizing Flusing’s waterfront.

In effect, FWC LDF partnered with the Department of City Planning to develop the proposal called Flushing West, which would’ve rezoned approximately 47 acres of the Flushing waterfront before the plan was withdrawn due to concerns over infrastructure, traffic, affordable housing, and displacement. A somewhat different model of collaboration has distinguished the newly envisioned Special Flushing Waterfront District and rezoning application, namely when Community Board 7 Vice Chair Chuck Apelian served as a consultant to the developers before recusing himself from the rezoning vote. 

But activists in Flushing say that, among other examples, both the opposition to Industry City’s proposed expansion and to the Flushing special district are proof of a growing movement for community-led rezoning efforts, in which New Yorkers refuse to be taken advantage of by monied developers. Through extensive coalition-building across the city, activists say they are pushing back against the status quo of the city’s land use processes to galvanize change that will put communities’ voices first. 

The City Planning Commission, a body made up of appointees of city elected officials, voted to approve the rezoning application on Wednesday, sending it to the City Council for consideration, with 50 days for a vote by the Council. In the meantime, negotiations between the developer and local City Council Member Peter Koo are expected to unfold in both public and private, including through a Council zoning committee hearing on the proposal.

While other elected officials in Flushing have voiced their disapproval of the waterfront project, Council Member Koo has not taken an official stance one way or the other. He hinted at his opinion in a statement to Gotham Gazette, saying, “The Special Flushing Waterfront District has many merits that would provide our community with tangible benefits we wouldn't have under an as-of-right scenario. We're working with stakeholders in hopes of making this project the best it can be for Flushing.”

The Flushing waterfront rezoning plan has been divisive since the developers submitted their application in December 2019, with opponents arguing in part that environmental remediation and affordable housing should not be dependent upon the interests of private real estate. When the Department of City Planning certified the waterfront project without an Environmental Assessment Statement on the basis the rezoning would not result in significant impacts, effectively bypassing initial community input, critics said the city exploited the inherent weaknesses of the land use review process, known as ULURP, to rush the rezoning application despite the needs of Flushing residents. 

The move emboldened a trio of groups — Chhaya Community Development Corporation, the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, and the MinKwon Center — to file a lawsuit against the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission, calling for an environmental review of the development proposal and ultimately more community involvement in the waterfront project. 

“There are lots of questions about the impact of this particular project that we will never find out because the city has rubber-stamped the developers’ rationale that there is not enough of an environmental impact,” said John Choe, executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce and a Democatic candidate running to replace the term-limited Koo via next year’s city elections. 

Activists have also expressed doubt concerning ULURP’s ability to empower community voices after the City Planning Commission’s first land use hearing in six months was held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, on September 16.

“Having a public hearing [online] in a district where 41% of people don't have broadband internet access is not a public hearing,” said Elizabeth Oh, a community organizer with Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance, citing data from City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office. On the day of the hearing, Byeon decried on Twitter, “Our First Amendment rights are violated.”

Not unlike Industry City’s 11-hour City Council hearing, the City Planning Commission’s public hearing for the Flushing waterfront rezoning went on for over six hours. Some criticized the developer’s presentation at the start of the hearing for being too long and taking time away from community members’ testimonials. The expected City Council hearing on the Flushing proposal will likely also be a long, contentious affair.

On the other side of the debate, the collapse of the Industry City rezoning proposal coupled with the immense economic stress of the coronavirus recession has only heightened the sense of urgency surrounding the Flushing waterfront project. Carlo Scissura, the president and CEO of the New York Building Congress and a supporter of the Flushing development plan, objects to opponents’ claims that such major development won’t address the community's needs in the midst of a pandemic. “This is exactly what we should be doing when we’re in a crisis,” he said in an interview. “We need to invest.”

How and where to invest is, of course, precisely the crux of community members’ concerns, but, according to Scissura, “There will be opportunity at the community board, borough, and City Council levels to shape the project moving forward.”

Unemployment in Queens spiked from 3% in February to 15.1% in April, at the height of the pandemic, according to data from New York’s Department of Labor. The rate was down slightly in September, but remained high at 13.8%.

In zip code 11354, where the Flushing waterfront land to be rezoned is located, the percent change in unemployment is even more extreme. Data from The New York Times shows that the unemployment rate in the neighborhood in February was a mere 2%. In June, the estimated unemployment rate jumped to 23%, with other parts of the area as high as 28%.

Several proponents of the project have voiced anxiety about growing, blanket antagonism toward development in the city, a political climate that Tom Grech, head of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, has characterized as “the environment of ‘no.’” As the city lags behind the country in terms of a coronavirus-related fiscal recovery, Grech argues, “We should be rolling out the red carpet for people who go through the proper channels to create investment opportunities.”

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, the consortium of developers behind the Flushing waterfront project, FWRA, LLC, likewise attributed the failure of Industry City to a misguided anti-development ideology. 

“Industry City was yet another example of politics over people,” the statement reads. “The Special Flushing Waterfront District is an entirely different project, the biggest difference of which is our District is NOT A REZONING. We are not asking for additional density except where affordable housing will be provided. We have been working with the community and its stakeholders for years on this project, including the opposition. Flushing's waterfront has been a contaminated wasteland for decades. Without development, there is no progress or growth. Can we for once put politics aside and prioritize the residents of Flushing?”

Grech asked of the project’s opponents, “What is your alternative? What do you suggest instead of the developers’ money?”

Ideally, Flushing activists say they would like to put forth their own community-developed plan for revitalizing the waterfront, as organizers in Industry City did. But that plan does not yet exist, and the organized effort to create it is in development. 

While Industry City rezoning negotiations were also ongoing for years, public debate intensified greatly when the proposal entered ULURP, was passed by the City Planning Commission, and hit the City Council countdown clock. Pushed by organized local activists, Sunset Park Council Member Carlos Menchaca decided to oppose the rezoning altogether, even after many of his earlier demands had been met by the developers. With some of his colleagues in the Council expressing support for the proposal because of its promise of thousands of additional jobs, Menchaca rallied many other Brooklyn elected officials against it over fears of displacement and what they saw as too-few community benefits, leading the developer to pull the plan.

While Council Member Koo appears open to considering the Special Flushing Waterfront District proposal and negotiations appear set to enter a new stage given the ULURP process, Queens Borough President Sharon Lee has recommended to reject the proposal, and local State Assembly Member Ron Kim has also voiced his disapproval of the plan. Lee’s likely successor, Donovan Richards, has not taken a public stance on the project, but he recently voiced his support for the proposed YourLIC development plan along Long Island City’s waterfront. State Senators Toby Stavisky and John Liu have expressed public enthusiasm for the waterfront rezoning. Mayor Bill de Blasio has not addressed the issue at all, just as he also didn’t take a position on the Industry City proposal, saying it was a private application, not city-backed, and that while the promise of jobs was intriguing he wanted to let the City Council process play out, which it then did to the proposal’s demise.

Some believe that one of the reasons why the rezoning project in Flushing has flown “below the radar” of politicians is the ethnicity of the transnational developer team, whose members are Chinese- and Taiwanese-American. “If this was a group of white developers, displacing African Americans, Latinos, people would be paying a lot more attention to what's going on here,” said Choe. “But because it's Chinese-American developers pushing out Chinese-American residents and small business owners, no one seems to be paying attention to what is a very similar situation as other neighborhoods that have been gentrified.”

Proponents of the project have emphasized at public hearings that the developers are members of Flushing who want to empower the community. However, Dr. Tarry Hum, professor and chair of Urban Studies at Queens College, argues that this wrongly conflates transnational affluent developers with Flushing’s marginalized groups, such as immigrants and small business owners, who are more likely to experience displacement as a result of gentrification. 

“When [the developers] say they’re from the community, you have to wonder which community they’re talking about,” said Hum, who has long questioned the proposed redevelopment

While organizers in Sunset Park had necessary time — seven years — to develop a comprehensive alternative vision to their waterfront rezoning, activists in Flushing say they do not have that luxury. “This rezoning plan just hit us like a bomb that’s already lighted,” said Byeon. 

For now, local groups say they are collaborating closely to develop an alternative plan to the developers’ that reflects the needs of the community. 

Not only that, they’re in contact with organizers and groups in other neighborhoods, including those in Sunset Park, Long Island City, and Inwood, as part of a larger effort to form a city-wide coalition. During a time when the coronavirus has created a broader sense of isolation in the city, Flushing activists say they are grateful for the solidarity and empathy found in these other communities. What’s more, activists say that the increased reliance on technology during the pandemic has better enabled community-led planning across a larger, geographic scope. 

The ULURP process has “forced people to fight for concessions from the developers and sell off communities bit by bit,” said Sarah Ahn, an organizer with Flushing Workers Center. Activists hope that their alliance will function as a network for those experiencing unwanted rezoning to share strategies and build power against the prevailing system. 

No matter what vision plan the opposition drafts, however, the Flushing project’s developers are adamant that only one of two options is possible: the currently proposed mixed-use development, including public waterfront and open space access, as well as affordable housing, or an “as-of-right” development without any public benefits. Critics have cast some doubt on whether the developers can build as of right.

To this, Choe suggested a simple solution: “Let’s call their bluff.”

by Allison Smith for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated with the latest tax revenue projections by the developers and to note that the developer team is both Chinese- and Taiwanese-American.

Big Flushing Project Up Next in City Debate Over Development Tue, 03 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Special Flushing Waterfront District: A Massive Giveaway? as cuomo proposes

Flushing Special Waterfront District protestors

Most Flushing community stakeholders, including at least one Community Board 7 member, learned from a December YIMBY article that a massive waterfront rezoning and special district application had been certified by the City Planning Commission, initiating the seven-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure that could make it a reality.

Eager to learn the details of the proposed rezoning and new development, the January 7 CB 7 land use committee meeting was attended by so many unfamiliar faces such that the committee chair asked everyone for a brief self-introduction.

While Flushing resident and activist Bobby Nathan was among a handful of attendees who expressed their opposition to the Special Flushing Waterfront District rezoning that evening, many others in subsequent meetings joined him. Initially protestors were dismissed for being “rude and inconsiderate,” then five NYPD officers were called to the January 21 meeting due to a group of protesters holding signs stating sentiments such as “We don’t want your -ty luxury condos.”

The Special Flushing Waterfront District proposal would add nine buildings for a total of 13 towers (four buildings provide a base for two towers each) in a 29-acre site bounded by 36th Avenue to the north, College Point Blvd to the east, 40th Road to the south, and the Flushing Creek to the west. All the proposed towers except for two will exceed the FAA height restrictions in the primary approach path to LaGuardia Airport, which is less than two miles away.

These towers would add 3 million square feet in luxury hotels, residential condos, retail, and office space. The addition of 1,725 luxury residential condos represents more than half of the total volume of luxury condos added to the Flushing market in the past decade. To facilitate pedestrian and vehicular circulation, a network of “publicly accessible” private streets and private extensions of existing mapped streets will connect the cluster of mixed-use towers. 

The development team’s presentations emphasize the introduction of an urban scale and improvements in the public realm as primary community benefits. However, the architectural renderings underscore the utility of the open space, which largely serves to provide relief from the massive building bases lined with ground-level retail storefronts rather than accommodate passive or active recreational use.

The public realm includes a pedestrian path that will connect the new blocks along the Flushing Creek (which remains polluted by combined sewage and stormwater overflows). The other community benefit is a miniscule 61 units of affordable housing at 80% of Area Median Income (AMI) equal to $85,360 for a family of four, while the median household income in downtown Flushing is closer to $41,000.

Despite the massive scale, complicated and layered environmental matters including the remediation of brownfields and the Flushing Creek, construction in a coastal flood hazard area and hurricane evacuation high-risk zone, and outstanding public safety concerns due to the proposed building heights that potentially obstruct airplane navigation, the Department of City Planning issued a negative declaration on the Environmental Assessment Statement, meaning that the agency found “no significant effect on the quality of the environment.”

The negative declaration eliminates two pre-ULURP opportunities for public review and comment on the socioeconomic, environmental, and neighborhood impacts of this complicated and transformative special district and rezoning application.  Because of the negative declaration, Flushing stakeholders were denied an opportunity for a public scoping hearing to comment on topics that should be part of an Environmental Impact Statement, and another opportunity to review and comment on a comprehensive Draft Environmental Impact Statement

The Department of City Planning explained the negative declaration is merited because the development area is a commercial (C4-2) zone and the proposed new density and uses are as-of-right.  Only a small portion of the development site will be rezoned from a manufacturing (M3-1) zone to a mixed manufacturing-residential (M1-2/R7-1) zone.

Department of City Planning’s explanation, however, is deceptively simplistic.  Since the development site is comprised of numerous lots, several that are large (in the range of 100,000 square feet) and deep (as they are bounded by College Point Blvd and the waterfront, reaching 582 feet in depth) and varied in topography and grade (downward slope to the Flushing Creek), the as-of-right zoning is “fairly restrictive.”  Moreover, the 1998 Waterfront Access Plan applies to the site and requires provision of “a shared public walkway, upland connections to the public walkway, and visual corridors.” Given these significant site constraints, a special district designation is essential for the developer-owners to maximize the commercial (C4-2) zoning bulk and density parameters.

To resolve these challenges, the three property owners formed FRWA LLC to work with the Department of City Planning and a small army of master planners, architects, engineers, and lawyers to divide the 29-acre area into buildable sites that facilitate visual corridors connected by privately owned and managed streets.

In order to maximize the commercial (C4-2) as-of-right buildable floor area, the special district requires a waiver to permit 11 towers to exceed the FAA’s strict height restrictions. Moreover, the special district lowers the parking to a commercial (C4-4) zoning that requires one parking space per 1,000 sq. ft. rather than per 300 sq. ft. in a C4-2.

In contrast to City Planning’s position that the proposed density is as-of-right, a Special Flushing Waterfront District to waive FAA restrictions, modify WAP zoning controls, and stipulate additional state and federal environmental approvals is necessary for FRWA LLC to maximize their C4-2 development rights.  In order words, the proposed waterfront district is not truly as-of-right because the development scheme is dependent on numerous waivers and modifications of land use rules.

The planning for the Special Flushing Waterfront District dates back to 2010, when former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman’s Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation (FWC LDC) secured a $1.5 million New York State Brownfields Opportunity Areas (BOA) planning grant.

FWC LDC hired ARKF to conduct baseline land use, zoning, and environmental studies of a larger 60-acre study area. In 2014, FWC LDC transferred the remaining $800,000 of the BOA grant to the Department of City Planning to complete these studies and prepare a zoning proposal. During this stage of planning, City Planning dubbed an 11-block portion of the waterfront area (approximately 47 acres) Flushing West, and expanded the scope of the zoning study to include new affordable housing production as part of Mayor de Blasio’s Housing New York plan. Crain’s New York Business reported on this highly unusual arrangement:

“The role of the (FWC LDC) in the planning process and the money it will be paying the department raise questions about who is actually running the show in this part of Queens and how much real estate interests who support the initiative— including members of the development corporation's board—stand to gain.”

flushing creek

Described as “under the radar,” Flushing West joined Brooklyn’s East New York and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx as the first neighborhood rezonings eyed for implementing the mayor’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy.

The Flushing Rezoning Community Alliance led by the MinKwon Center for Community Action, Faith in New York, and St. George's Church was formed in July 2015 to advocate for an inclusive planning process and deeper housing affordability.  It prepared a report highlighting substandard neighborhood conditions and detailing recommendations for an equitable rezoning. Less than a year later on May 27, 2016, City Council Member Peter Koo wrote a letter to then City Planning Commission Chair Carl Weisbrod detailing outstanding infrastructure constraints and pressed the point that the Flushing West rezoning would be equivalent to "stuffing 10 pounds of potatoes into a five pound bag." ​The city ceded to Koo’s request and ended the Flushing West Neighborhood Planning Study.

While Flushing West ceased to be a city-led rezoning, the Department of City Planning continued to work with FWC LDC on a smaller area comprised of the lots owned by the three major developers that formed FRWA LLC. They are F and T Group, United Construction & Development Group, and Young Nian Group LLC, a Chinese transnational development group that purchased the former Korean supermarket Assi Plaza, after several speculative flip sales, for $115 million. In consultation with Community Board 7’s executive committee, this public-private collaboration completed the Flushing waterfront special district and rezoning application.

Department of City Planning served an integral role in preparing a Special Flushing Waterfront District plan that maximizes private development rights and profits. In response to the 2015 Crain’s article that questioned DCP’s consultant role to the FWC LDC, Queens Department of City Planning Director John Young wrote, “In short, the LDC has no veto power over our work. Rather, the public does - via the city's transparent and multilayered public land-use review procedure.”

However, the Department of City Planning’s negative declaration on the EAS has eliminated pre-ULURP opportunities for public review and comment on a complex special district and rezoning application.  In response to my request for clarification on the EAS, the Queens City Planning office suggested I contact an associate at Stroock, the law firm that represents FRWA LLC.

ULURP ends with the New York City Council, and Council Member Koo’s vote will determine the fate of the Special Flushing Waterfront District. In addition to detailing the challenges due to overdevelopment and the outstanding need for affordable housing, Koo’s May 2016 letter noted that developers informed him the Flushing West rezoning represented a downzoning and since "the numbers didn't add up," “it is actually more financially feasible for them to have an empty lot.”

Apparently, City Planning, FWC LDC, and the FRWA LLC’s army of experts figured out how to make the numbers work to move ahead with the waterfront district plan. The question now is, will Council Member Koo maintain a principled position and reject a rezoning that augments environmental risks and socioeconomic burdens, and supercharges the gentrification of Flushing? 

Tarry Hum is Professor and Chair of the Urban Studies Department, Queens College, City University of New York. On Twitter @TarryHum.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Special Flushing Waterfront District: A Massive Giveaway? Thu, 30 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000