Outside City Hall and inside the City Council chambers on Wednesday, a duel unfolded over Innovation QNS — a $2 billion mixed-use development proposal that would span five blocks in Astoria to create 2,845 new apartments and more than 250,000 square feet of commercial and community space.
Four years after three developers — Silverstein Properties, BedRock Real Estate Partners and Kaufman Astoria Studios — first presented their plans for the project, Innovation QNS has become a big symbol of a broader fight over how much new development the city needs, and for whom.
That played out at a hearing of the City Council subcommittee on zoning on Wednesday ahead of a final Council vote expected next month — where local Councilmember Julie Won, who has opposed the project so far, will help decide its fate.
The local community board turned down the developer’s plan in a 24-8 vote in June, as did Queens Borough President Donovan Richards in August — both are non-binding recommendations in the land use review process. The proposal did get a go-ahead from the City Planning Commission in late September and, with momentum toward its passage appearing to build, Wednesday’s hearing gave supporters and opponents one more chance to make their cases.
The development, which is supported by 32BJ SEIU and Laborer’s Local 79, would create about 1,700 jobs and 1,110 new affordable apartments, according to the developers. But opponents say those units would still be unaffordable to many local residents while also hiking up the neighborhood’s cost of living.
Astoria, they note, has had sharper rent increases than the city average according to the city’s own statistics, with its “highest market pressure” making it difficult for lower-income residents to remain there. Businesses, too, have struggled with rising costs, as more commercial evictions happened there than in any other neighborhood in Queens in recent years.
A Final Push
The Innovation QNS developers won over some former opponents, including Borough President Richards, by increasing the projects’ share of affordable housing units from the mandatory 25% to 40% through prospective city subsidies.
“I live in the real world, and at some point the rubber meets the road,” Richards told THE CITY, adding that he continues to support efforts to push for more affordability despite his approval for the project. “This is a historic project in that we got city hall to put subsidies into Astoria. City hall never really puts subsidies into Astoria.”
Mayor Eric Adams, who’s pushed a “City of Yes” approach to getting more new housing built, expressed his support for the project on Monday, telling reporters that “we can’t continue to acknowledge that we have a housing problem and then every project that pops up, we go against it.”
He added that “I’m hoping that, just as we’ve done with others, we can sit down and find a place that the Councilperson will understand that this is part of addressing the housing problems you have in the city.”
That was a reference to Won, who represents Astoria and who has remained opposed to the project even with the new plan to make 40% of its units affordable.
Winning over Won’s support will be key to the future of the development because of the Council’s tradition of member deference, in which other members back the decision of the local member on land use projects in their district.
Recent pressure and last-minute reversals by other members to approve other affordable housing developments in the city, however, have raised speculation around the future of this de-facto veto power.
In a leaked email first reported by Politico last Friday, Won encouraged her Council colleagues to join her in rejecting the proposal, citing concerns around displacement, rent increases and infrastructure challenges.
Won then said that she will not support the project unless the developers commit to pay another 15% of affordable units out of their own proceeds — which would bring the total share up to 55%.
Speaking to THE CITY on Friday, Won added that “public funding should be used for public goods on public land,” like sites owned by the New York City Housing Authority or the Economic Development Corporation, to address ongoing needs, rather than for developers like the Innovations QNS group who are building on private land.
“I am not against development, I am actually pro responsible development,” Won told THE CITY, addressing the need for affordable housing in her district. “But I need to do right by me, and I want to see your numbers. Show me your financials of why you can’t do beyond 25% affordability out of your pocket…. We don’t have an infinite amount of money. We don’t have a surplus.”
At the Council subcommittee hearing Wednesday, the developers testified that the project will yield about a $100 million net return, and that they are looking to “maximize affordability as far as [they] can push it and still ensure that the project can be built.” The numbers stop adding up, the developers said, if more than 40% of the units are affordable.
Some observers say that the continued resistance from Won — who took office in January after winning a competitive 18-candidate race — is part of the political calculus to hold onto a seat at the office ahead of City Council elections next year.
“The reality is that she has to be identified as progressive in order for her to win that district,” political consultant Hank Sheinkopf told THE CITY. “If she appears to be too far to the right, or assisting developers in any way…she could lose that election.”
Won, Sheinkopf argued, was fighting the last war at a time when “Affordability is no longer an issue here. What’s happening in real terms is that developers will do less work in the city in the next few years because their profitability numbers are going down.”
Under its current proposal, Innovation QNS plans to set aside 500 units at affordable rents for those making less than 30% of the area’s median income — about $28,000 for individuals or $36,000 for a family of four. It remains unclear, however, how incomes for the newly added affordable units would be set.
Those details will be determined by the result of ongoing negotiations with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the developers said at the Wednesday hearing. They have yet to nail down a commitment from HPD, they added, but plan on finalizing a community-benefits agreement ahead of the City Council vote next month.
Won, however, raised questions about how and whether the developers will follow through on their commitment to add more affordable units in the absence of a binding written pact with HPD.
“I can name multiple community-based agreements that have been broken in my district for the last five years,” Won told THE CITY. “I’m not gonna support a project based on nothing.”
HPD usually determines income levels for subsidized units before the Department of City Planning approves project proposals for the land use review process, Won told THE CITY, citing conversations with the HPD, where officials told her they needed more time to flesh out details about the new affordability levels.
If the prospective HPD subsidies were to fall through, the developers said at the Wednesday hearing, they “will wait to build” the additional affordable units “when the resources are there in the public-private partnership to do so.”
Houses or Warehouses?
Innovation QNS said in a statement that it would become “the largest privately developed affordable housing project in the history of Queens” if approved, and would “by a large margin dwarf all other recently approved rezonings in New York City.”
The developer added that rejecting the project would “severely worsen” ongoing gentrification and displacement in the area, which “can only be stopped by building vastly more housing.”
Some proponents of the plan have also pointed to the failure of a similar plan in Harlem, where the developer later withdrew its proposal due to council opposition and now plans to open a truck depot.
That’s one possible outcome for the Innovation QNS site in the case that the rezoning for development does not pass through city council, the developers said at the Wednesday hearing, noting that the site’s current zoning would allow for truck depots or warehouses.
“The reality is that the alternative to this project is not a different iteration of the same project,” a representative of the development team said at the hearing. “It could be 20 years before anything happens on these sites.”
Won, however, told THE CITY that it is still possible to build affordable housing based on standards that sidesteps backroom deals and prioritizes “responsible development” via transparency and meaningful community engagement in the land use review process.
Many of the projects’ opponents also said that their objections come not from their resistance to change — but rather from their desire to preserve the kind of change that has been representative of the waves of immigration that has come to Queens over the decades.
“Obviously, places will change. But I think changing in a way that’s class inclusive is really important,” Rana Abdelhamid, an organizer who is borned and raised in Astoria’s Little Egypt to immigrant parents, told THE CITY. “It’s making sure that for immigrants, communities of color, and folks who are coming in starting from scratch like my parents — that Astoria is a place where they could start.”