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Flushing Waterfront Development Clears Key Council Vote After Securing Union Support, Over Local Objections

Developers and City Hall have big plans for Flushing Creek in Queens, Nov. 17, 2020.
Developers and City Hall have big plans for Flushing Creek in Queens, Nov. 17, 2020.
Christine Chung/THE CITY

Following pushback, protests and delays in a scheduled vote, a key City Council committee on Wednesday approved a major real estate development set to transform the east bank of Queens’ Flushing Creek.

The 14-to-1 vote by the Council’s Land Use Committee to approve the Special Flushing Waterfront District paves way for the full Council to vote Thursday. The 29-acre project — slated to include 1,725 apartments and 879 hotel rooms — is expected to pass.

Among the hurdles the trio of developers had to overcome was opposition from numerous City Council members, even though the local member, Peter Koo (D-Queens) backed the project.

Key to securing passage was a deal struck between the developers and unions for building and hotel workers to pay employees union-scale wages. The Council also secured commitments from the developers to hire locally and offer space to the food pantry La Jornada “dedicated to child mentoring programs and senior recreational use.”

Council members who voted in favor on Wednesday emphasized the necessity of well-paying jobs after the pandemic’s toll on the city’s workforce.

“We got the local hires and good paying union jobs which are very critical to the existence of that community and it provides a pathway to the middle class and job creation to that area as we begin to build back the economy in New York City,” said Councilmember Francisco Moya (D-Queens), who chairs the zoning subcommittee.

A map shows the area of the proposed Flushing Special Waterfront District.
A map shows the area of the Flushing Special Waterfront District.
Courtesy of Special Waterfront District developers

Under existing city requirements, the developers only have to include 90 affordable housing units — a major sticking point for opponents. Still, developers have agreed to engage in “good faith discussions” over a three-year period about building more than the required number of affordable units, according to a Council outline of the deal.

Developers F&T Group, United Construction & Development Group, and Young Nian Group said in a statement that the Council’s support represents a “pivotal vote for New York City’s economic recovery, especially for a hard-working immigrant community like Flushing.”

‘Tremendous Mistake’

But not everyone is cheering the deal. Members of a coalition formed last year in opposition to the rezoning told THE CITY they were deeply disappointed by the Council’s embrace of the project.

Their sense of betrayal was deepened because Moya had issued a statement last month on behalf of a dozen Council members calling approval “irresponsible” without “real affordable housing” as well as good local jobs.

The grassroots leaders said the votes cast Wednesday do not reflect widespread community sentiment that the rezoning will lead to intensified gentrification and housing displacement in an area where 57% of residents spend more than 35% of their income on rent.

Will Spisak, director of Housing Justice for Chhaya CDC, said the City Council made a “tremendous mistake,” one that encourages more real estate speculation and rezonings pressed by developers across the city.

An illustration of the city’s proposed Flushing Waterfront Revitalization project.
An illustration of the city’s proposed Flushing Waterfront Revitalization project.
Jeff Stikeman Architectural Art

“This was the turning point in Flushing’s history that we could stop it from turning into the Times Square of Queens, but instead we decided to let luxury developers have their way,” he said.

Sarah Ahn, an organizer with the Flushing Workers Center, pointed to the irony of agreeing to a grab-bag of amenities to offset the myriad impacts of building luxury developments.

“You cannot extract benefits for a community that is suffering from astronomically high rent and property taxes brought on by precisely these kinds of developments,” she said. “No amount of square footage for some nonprofit or a few more measly units that aren’t even affordable for our community” is enough.

From 2000 to 2018, the median sale price for a condo in the area more than doubled to $680,000, the Furman Center found.

Looking Ahead

With little opportunity left to block the project before the full Council vote and mayor’s expected approval, opponents said they are looking to the future, just as term limits loom for most current Council members at the end of 2021.

A new wave of candidates are already angling to replace them, with some in Queens running against large-scale development.

“Letting the developers just rezone and build more luxury and the idea that the community gets some tiny crumb out of it — there’s widespread rejection of that,” Ahn said. “We’re smarter today than we were when Mayor Bill de Blasio came into office and started pushing these onto all of our communities. I think that’s a good sign.”

“We have elections coming up, [the] City Council will be changed. I think that’s a real opportunity for the working people in New York City to exert their say.”

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