February 6, By Christian Murray
City planning’s goal to rezone a 50-block section of the Queens Plaza/Court Square district was greeted to a frosty reception Tuesday night when the department held its first public meeting to introduce the concept.
Many of the 100-plus attendees were skeptical of the plan, fearing that it would lead to further gentrification and continue to price out existing residents and business owners/artists.
The department plans to rezone the district in order to promote the development of office space as well as increase the number of affordable housing units. The plan would, in part, try to correct the unintended consequences of City Planning’s 2001 rezoning that led to the boom in luxury housing.
In 2001, the city rezoned the Queens Plaza/Court Square district in an attempt to turn the area into a vibrant business district. The city provided developers with the ability to build huge buildings as it sought office development similar to the Citibank building. The rezoning did not restrict developers as to what type of building went up, therefore opening the door to luxury residential towers.
Since the rezoning, 13,000 units of housing have gone up or are in the process of going up, with only 5 percent of them—or 650 units—affordable, said City Planner Penny Lee at the meeting.
Meanwhile, City Planning’s 2001 goal of adding 6 million square feet in office space has fallen well short. To date only 2 million square feet of office space has been constructed or is in the process of being constructed. The lack of office space has pushed commercial rents higher, putting pressure on small businesses.
Lee said that another rezoning would help create a better balance between office and residential space as well as promote affordable housing.
“We know we don’t always get it right and in part that is why we’re here tonight,” Lee said. “We can do nothing and allow development to continue as it is and not get any affordable [housing] and not try and encourage office space to relieve pressure [on rents], or we can do a study like this and look at ways of applying an affordable housing requirement and look at ways to encourage office development.”
A rezoning would trigger the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing amendment (MIH) that would require residential developers to construct affordable units on or off site. The city would require between 20 and 30 percent of the units in any residential development to be affordable.
Few details about what City Planning has in mind in for the district were revealed at Tuesday’s meeting. The department outlined the core area that it is looking to upzone (see map) as well as a so-called “context area” where the city aims to improve services and infrastructure to make way for greater development.
Lee discussed how the city is investigating adding park space, schools and transportation but there were was little in the way specifics.
Lee and John Young, also from City Planning, spent most of the evening hearing attendees vent about the hardships they have endured since the 2001 rezoning. Given that, many were wary of City Planning’s goal to rezone the area yet again.
“The plan, to me, is more hyper-gentrification,” said Jenny Dubnau, who has an art studio in Dutch Kills
She said that there is very little being done to slow the pace of development and was skeptical about the how the plan to bolster affordable housing would change anything.”So you get crumbs of possible affordability but then you have 80 percent that are luxury [units],” she said.
Dubnau said the rent on her art studio had gone up significantly and attributed the upward prices to the development of hotels and luxury high-rise buildings nearby.
“You’re going to get some strong pushback from me and a lot of other people unless we see that the building and development being done is for us so we can stay her,” she said. Dubau said she wants the neighborhood downzoned as opposed to being upzoned.
A resident of Ravenswood Houses said the construction of the luxury towers had pushed up commercial rents too and many small businesses were struggling to remain viable. Furthermore, she said that another rezoning would not help poor people find housing and little was being done for the people who have lived in the community for a long time.
“You have to work with the people who are here. We built this area. You can’t just discard us like we’re recyclable garbage,” she said.
The meeting got heated when attendee Ann McDermott claimed that the rezoning was the result of the mayor being paid off by the real estate industry.
“We have a mayor who is totally in the pocket of the real estate industry…” McDermott said. “But it seems like you want to get rid of everyone who’s been here and kept this place alive. We’re tired of this. We are totally tired of these presentations and the bullshit you are feeding us. The people of New York City are going to rise up against the f$$king real estate industry and were going to stop you from destroying our city.”
Others complained about the lack of services in the neighborhood.
Rebecca Olinger, a long-time Court Square resident who walks to work in Queens Plaza each day, said that there is a lack of retail services—such as drug stores, hardware stores or even a bakery. She complained that many of the new developments were self contained with their own gyms and other amenities.
Lee said the Court Square/Queens Plaza area has yet to become a 24 hour neighborhood. Therefore, businesses are largely limited to evenings and weekends to generate business.
The meeting was the first of several public meetings expected to take place by the end of June, where residents and businesses owners are being encouraged to put forward their views as to what a rezoning should entail.
From that point City Planning aims to put forward its recommendations, which would start the rezoning process. That process could take up to seven months.