March 10, 2022 By Christian Murray
Council Member Julie Won provided the development team looking to rezone five city blocks in Astoria some sharp advice Tuesday: Do more community outreach before trying to get the property rezoned.
Won sent a letter to the Innovation QNS development team—comprised of Silverstein Properties, Kaufman Astoria Studios and BedRock Real Estate Partners—telling them that their community outreach efforts have been inadequate and that they need to be more forthcoming with plan documents pertaining to the 18-building project.
The developers plan to create a mixed-use district between 37th Street and Northern Boulevard, bound by 35th and 36th Avenues, that would consist of 18 buildings that would range in heights from nine to 27 stories. The developers announced the plan in 2020 and have been working with the Dept. of City Planning since in order to get their rezoning application certified.
Once certified, the six-month long public review process—known as ULURP– is scheduled to begin and the application will be either approved or rejected. Won anticipates that the developers intend to certify the project in coming weeks.
However, Won, in the letter she sent to the Innovation QNS team, wrote that not enough outreach has been done. Furthermore, she wrote that Community Board 1 has not been provided with the project details necessary for it to properly evaluate the proposal.
“This project has been in the works since 2020 and claims to have done extensive outreach in the community,” she wrote. “Community Board 1, local residents and housing organizations have all expressed concern about a lack of adequate community outreach especially in Spanish and Bangla,” she wrote.
She said that the outreach was of critical importance given the size of the project.
“Thus far, the amount of community engagement is insufficient for a project of this scale that will deeply impact not only those in the immediate vicinity, but also will have lasting impacts on the neighborhoods as a whole.”
The letter advised the developers to conduct in-person outreach in multiple languages before getting the project certified. She also called on them to hold town halls.
“In person town halls and workshops in multiple languages must be held to ensure that neighbors have a chance to express their concerns, provide direct input on community needs, and have their questions answered by your organizations directly.”
Won’s views are pivotal to the fate of the project since it will be her vote in the city council that will ultimately determine whether the rezoning application is approved. The city council typically votes in lockstep with the representative where a development is proposed.
Her letter comes three weeks after Community Board 1 held its Land Use and Zoning Committee Meeting to discuss the plan with the developers. Won participated in the virtual meeting where she heard the development team present its latest plan and heard the complaints from board members.
At the meeting, Tracy Capune, Vice President at Kaufman Astoria Studios, told the board that the development team has worked on outreach for approximately four years and has been conducting outreach via multiple channels.
She said they created a website called InnovationQNS.com that provides information on the plan in eight languages; done outreach via social media that has led to 42,500 engagements; conducted phone canvassing that has reached 6,000 households; done 250 hours of street canvassing in neighborhood hotspots; knocked on 7,000 doors; and had discussions with 70 community organizations and nonprofit groups, which represents thousands of community residents.
But there were some board members who were skeptical of the outreach saying that the level of awareness of the project was limited. Board Members such as Evie Hantzopoulos asked for a list of what groups the developers had spoken to and when those meetings took place.
The developers came under fire at the meeting for not providing enough details as to what the actual plan involves and what its impacts would be on the area.
They provided a broad overview of the development plan, which is slightly larger than what was presented in 2020. The latest version has two 27-unit towers, as opposed to one in the initial plan—and makes room for 2,845 apartments (725 would be affordable), a little more than the 2,700 initially proposed.
The latest plan includes 250,000 square feet of office space, 200,000 square feet of retail offerings, 100,000 square feet of community space, 2 acres of public open space, and 1,465 parking spaces.
The initial plan also called for a school, something that the developers may no longer move ahead with. They said a school was not required, since the city determined that it was not required while conducting its Environmental Impact Statement. Furthermore, the School Construction Authority, according to the developers, said that it doesn’t require a site.
But the board wanted more granular information on the project, such as the project’s impact on transportation, noise, neighborhood character, since it would bring 7,000 residents to the area. Furthermore, they wanted to know what the ground floor uses for each of the buildings would be and more details as to the open space. Additionally, the wanted to know the construction time line and unit mix.
The developers said at the meeting that they would get the information to the board soon, noting that some of it was still being reviewed by various city agencies. At the meeting, Won also asked the developers for a Racial Impact Study, which would assess the project’s impact on immigrants and minorities.
“Community Board 1 has made numerous requests for preliminary information relating to the environmental impact of the project and has been rebuffed,” Won wrote in the letter. “The documents requested have been provided without incident by countless other applications in other rezonings. Withholding information that both our community board and city planning partners have assured us is typical to share prior to certification is not acceptable in any project, let alone one that is so massive and impactful to my constituents.”
Won said that the information must be provided to the community board prior to the project being certified, and that meetings need to be held to hear their concerns. She included a document that listed what information the board currently seeks.
She also said that a neighborhood impact study and a racial impact study–in addition to the preliminary Environmental Impact Statement—needs to be completed before certification. “The impacts on long-term residents and immigrant communities along with small businesses on the Steinway Corridor must be made clear at the outset and must inform all future discussions on the project.”
Won made it clear that the community needed this information.
“To initiate a ULURP before addressing the community’s concerns satisfactorily would demonstrate a lack of serious consideration for these critical issues facing Astoria and the impact on the broader community. It would also demonstrate a disregard of Astoria’s community priorities in how it evaluates proposals that will bring long term impacts to our neighborhood.”
The development team said that it would provide the information Won requested and appreciated her feedback.
“We are grateful for Council Member Won’s interest and engagement on this important project and look forward to continuing to work with her and the Community Board toward a successful outcome,” said Tom Corsillo, a spokesman for Innovation QNS in a statement.
“We believe we can accomplish the three things she has asked for. We have spent several years engaging with the local community, and will ramp up our in-person outreach in multiple languages, including Bangla and Spanish.”
Corsillo said the developers will also provide the community board with the information being sought.
“We would be happy to share preliminary Environmental Impact Statement information with the Community Board as soon as we can, with the full EIS available upon certification; and we will start work on a Racial Impact Study as suggested by Council Member Won – becoming the first major privately proposed development project to undertake this review.”