BALCONY - Business and Labor Coalition of New York
February 2nd, 2017

By Khorri Atkinson

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration’s push to spur commercial and affordable residential high-rise developments within a 50-block area in Long Island City received a full-throated rebuke this week from residents and business owners, who argued that many locals and small businesses are already being pushed out by a prior rezoning and rising real estate values.

About 100 visibly frustrated people from the area denounced the plan at the Department of City Planning’s public meeting Tuesday night, after officials introduced and discussed a study of the “LIC Core Neighborhood Plan.” The study seeks to create a mixed-use district situated between Sunnyside Yard and Queensbridge Houses.

But residents said another up-zone of the area following a rezoning that passed in 2001 would only benefit rich developers. The earlier proposal was intended to create office space, but instead, residents say, led to a rapid increase of residential towers and lack of retail amenities.

“We are scared to death, because how much can you charge a kid for a ballet class?” asked long-time Long Island City resident Zoe Morsette, who owns a working studio and said she has been struggling with soaring rent increase in recent years.

“We’re afraid to lose all of it,” Morsette added. “And my apartment building is in this zone and I’m wondering, are they going to tear down this building?”

Another resident decried de Blasio’s proposed 16-mile Brooklyn Queens Connector streetcar line, which the city said would cost $2.5 billion and will be funded by an expected increase in property values along the route. The streetcar is expected to make stops in Long Island City.

The public meeting came a year after the mayor expressed his interest in rezoning the area. The Long Island City Core Neighborhood Planning study area largely overlaps with the earlier Queens Plaza rezoning and part of the neighboring Dutch Kills neighborhood that was rezoned in 2008.

Long Island City is one of 15 neighborhoods throughout the city that de Blasio wants to rezone as part of a broader initiative to build about 80,000 new below-market-rate apartments and 160,000 market-rate units by 2024. The mayor also hopes to preserve 120,000 existing homes for low-to-middle-income tenants. The administration said city planning officials have been meeting with local stakeholder groups privately since 2015.

The director of city planning’s Queens office, John Young, and the agency’s Long Island City planner, Penny Lee, who presented the study, both worked for former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration and said the earlier rezoning plan fell short. They said of the 13,000 residential units built or under construction in the area since the earlier rezoning, only about 650 are affordable. The city had also hoped to create up to six million square feet of office space, but only 2 million square feet was constructed or is in the process of being constructed, Lee said.

De Blasio’s plan, they said, would include more affordable housing units and exist under the administration’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy, which requires developers to ensure that 20 to 30 percent of units are rent-regulated.

But it is still unclear how many affordable units will be created under the plan. Throughout the meeting, officials repeatedly reassured residents that their concerns would become the basis for the plan’s development.

“We recognize that not every time we do a zoning change it’s perfect,” Lee said. “We have tried to strike a balance. We have tried to strike compromises — with the city’s goals and community objectives.”

City planning officials said the department will host more public meetings to solicit feedback from residents on the rezoning. The department also plans to produce a concrete rezoning proposal of the study area by June so it can start the land-use approval process, called ULURP, which could take up to seven months. The proposal would need approval from Queens Community Board 2, the Borough president, the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

But residents are skeptical of the time-frame, saying it’s not feasible for them to address their concerns and thoroughly vet the study.

“If the public in Long Island City says we don’t want any development, that’s not an option, right? That’s not something you have to listen to, right?” asked Naved Husain, an organizer with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, a racial justice and community organizing group.

“We don’t have to listen to it,” Lee said, before jokingly adding that, “But by the same token, if everybody shows up with pitchforks…we hope that won’t be the outcome.”

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer represents the area and will play a key role in the land-use approval process. In a statement through his spokesperson, he said, “I look forward to hearing what comes out of the community and stakeholder to meetings currently taking place and will evaluate any proposals that may be forthcoming with only the best interests of my constituents in mind.”

Lee repeatedly told residents that taking no action would mean less affordable housing in the study area. She said rezoning would increase density to offset the rising demand for commercial space that is squeezing out artists.

Officials also said Queensbridge Houses will not be rezoned, but the Department of Small Business Services would help connect residents to jobs opportunities connected with the study area.