Sept. 10, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez
A controversial plan to transfer city air rights to a private developer with the goal of bringing some affordable units to a Long Island City development has passed the City Planning Commission, and is now in the hands of the City Council.
The proposed project, in the last steps of its public review process, passed unopposed at an Aug. 22 City Planning Commission meeting after it was rejected by both Community Board 2 and the Queens Borough President earlier this summer.
The project involves the construction of two towers–a 27-story building at 27-01 Jackson Ave. and a 49-story structure at 26-32 Jackson Ave. Both buildings would be built with thousands of additional square feet of city-owned development rights.
The result is a development about three times larger than what the lead developers, the Lions Group, would have been permitted to build under current zoning. Through the transfer of the air rights, the developer would be able to build a 481-unit development with just over 150 affordable rentals.
The plan’s controversy stems from the trade-off the city is making in a bid to add affordable units to the city’s housing supply. Of the roughly 360,000 square feet of transferred development rights, less than half would be used by the developers for affordable rentals. The rest would be factored into commercial space and condominiums in each building.
In addition, the majority of the affordable units would be priced at 130 percent of the Area Median Income, requiring a family of three to have an income of $104,606 to qualify, for example.
While the CPC green-lighted the plan, some commissioners raised questions that echoed concerns shared by Community Board 2 members and residents.
“I do agree that there seems to be an imbalance with the benefit gained and what we’re giving back to the public in reference to the transfer of these air rights,” said commissioner Orlando Marin at the July 23 pre-hearing for the project, later adding, “There’s something out of line here when it relates to what we’re trying to do.”
Anna Hayes Levin, another commissioner, wanted a better understanding of how the air rights transfer and affordable unit count was determined.
“It does seem out of wack, as the community board has pointed out,” she said.
The developers, the Lions Group and Fetner Properties, along with the city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development, said to the commission in another meeting that the plan is a way to create affordable units with otherwise unusable development rights. The air rights for this project come from the Queensboro Bridge ramps adjacent to the lots.
The middle income affordability option, the city said, was selected based on how high the rents in Long Island City already are.
“There is a need for those units at even those high income levels,” said Perris Straughter, an HPD planner, adding, “We really do believe the city is getting the best deal.”
In addition, Straughter said the city will be “sharing” the upside on the condo portion of the development. The city will be partly sharing in the revenue by receiving cash payments and allocating them into a fund for affordable housing within Community Board 2. It is unclear, however, how much the city would receive from condo sales, although Straughter said the payments are triggered based on what the condos sell at.
At the Aug. 22 vote, one commissioner who voted yes still noted that the affordability layout wasn’t enough.
“I do believe this is an opportunity to achieve deeper affordability,” said commissioner Michelle R. de la Uz. She recommended that the City Council require that in their upcoming vote.
Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer has yet to say whether he opposes or supports the plan, but did note that he is studying the proposal and will be taking input from the Long Island City community before coming to a decision.
“I have many concerns about the project that would need to be fixed,” he said in a statement.
The City Council has 50 days to review and vote on the proposal after receiving the related CPC report.