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Big Astoria Cove Rezoning Lacks Specifics?

June 19, 2014

On Tuesday night Queens’ Community Board 1 held a public hearing on the proposed rezoning of Astoria Cove with a final vote next Tuesday, June 17th. However, over 50 community members signed up to speak at the public hearing to ask questions and voice serious concerns about the proposed development – especially about the lack of affordable housing, scale and visual impact of the proposal, and the jobs and hiring practices that will be utilized.

Where are the Specifics in Big Astoria Cove Rezoning?  On Tuesday night Queens’ Community Board 1 held a public hearing on the proposed rezoning of Astoria Cove with a final vote next Tuesday, June 17th.  A group of investors names 2030 Astoria Developers – led by Alma Realty – are applying to rezone an area along the Astoria waterfront from manufacturing to residential in order to build 1,700 apartments, approximately 54,000 square feet of retail space, and set aside land for the School Construction Authority to build a public elementary school in the future.

However, over 50 community members signed up to speak at the public hearing to ask questions and voice serious concerns about the proposed development – especially about the lack of affordable housing, scale and visual impact of the proposal, and the jobs and hiring practices that will be utilized.

But Alma Realty could provide surprisingly few specifics for the Community and for the Community Board, especially considering the Community Board is required under the ULURP process to vote next week. This might be because the City Planning in the de Blasio administration has allowed rezoning proposals that are technically complete but have problems proceeding with the 7-month ULURP review  (article here).

This raises a key question: How is the Community expected to weigh-in and how is the Community Board expected to vote on a development proposal where so few specifics have been finalized? Community Boards are not staffed with a planner and often seek outside input and expertise on rezoning proposals. This places Community Boards in the position of having to vote “no,” not because they don’t want a new development project, but because the project lacks the specifics necessary for the Board and community to feel comfortable with the proposal. While the rezoning procedural change may save developers money with faster certification, it also means that the community voice is silenced.

Considering that very few Community Boards have voted “no” on numerous rezoning proposals that have taken place over the past few years – are community boards really prepared to vote “no” now?

In the case of Astoria Cove, the developer could not answer questions on:

  • The Jobs and Businesses Displaced: While manufacturing areas can sometimes appear as inactive, under-utilized land, there are often active businesses that provide stable quality jobs behind those roller doors in these areas. Alma did not provide the number of businesses that would be displaced under their proposal or the number of jobs that would be displaced under the proposal. What will be done to relocate these businesses and jobs? It is important for the community to be able to weigh the net economic impact of the proposed development, and the local businesses and jobs that could be forced to close. These businesses, like granite counter top manufacturers, carpenters, and metal fabricators aren’t always pretty, but they do contribute to the local economy and provide jobs that pay far better than the service sector jobs new retail space will bring.
  • The Local Hiring of Residents and Businesses: Alma stated that they were in conversations with local community groups and with local unions about local hiring and union labor for the project. However they could not commit to either. As one resident of NYCHA’s Astoria Houses (also located on the Cove) pointed out – this is an opportunity to create jobs for local NYCHA residents and the broader neighborhoods and help support local businesses that already exist to grow and thrive.
  • The Number of Affordable Housing Units:  The current proposal has 295 affordable units out of the 1,689 total units – only 17 %. This is a decrease from the 340 affordable units proposed last year. Alma stated that they were “working with City Planning to increase the number of [affordable]units.” The current 17% is too low and the previous 20% is unacceptable. Astoria Cove is currently manufacturing land; the City is under no obligation to grant this rezoning and many would argue that it should not rezone the land to residential because of the need to preserve manufacturing space and jobs. If Alma is granted a residential use rezoning, it will make a windfall profit – given to them by the City’s land-use action. The City should put in place much higher affordable housing restrictions in order to leverage the best deal for the City and the best deal for local residents. As one resident said during the public testimony, there shouldn’t be fighting over 290 versus 350 affordable units – Alma should “exceed our expectations.”
  • The Level of Affordability: Alma stated that the units would range from low- to middle-income affordable units. This range means that the Affordable Units rents could range from $1,050 all the way up to $3,461 for a 2-bedroom apartment. This is an enormous range. And in a community board where half the resident households make less than $64,600 per year and can’t afford more than $1,600 – pricing affordable housing units at $1600 and up to $3500 means they aren’t actually affordable and therefore unavailable – to the local community. The developer also didn’t indicate how much public subsidy was going into each affordable housing unit. In other words – are the affordable units being paid for by Astoria residents and the rest of the City tax payers, or is it coming from the huge profits Alma stands to make off this rezoning.
  • The Length of Affordability:  The developer did not say how long the affordable housing units would remain affordable. In the testimony and questions, a number of community members stated they had been residents of Astoria for 30, 40, and 50+ years. Astoria is a stable community that residents often make their long-term if not permanent home. The affordable housing units should be permanently affordable as well.
  • The Location of Affordable Units: Alma stated that the affordable housing will likely be included through the development. However, getting a firm commitment that every phase of the development will include affordable housing is critical. Without this guarantee in place, the developer could build Phase 1 with only market-rate units- and then sell the remaining phases 2 and 3 to another developer. Leaving the community to fight with a new developer over the affordable housing units and community benefits as has happened to other communities in the City.
  • The Community Impact: The project has committed to a number of key community resources, including a land for and the school construction authority to build a school, and retail space for a grocery store. However residents raised real concerns about how the project, with its own shuttle to the subway and ferry access on the water, will be integrated into the local Astoria community of what is being developed is an “oasis” project.

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