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Queens Development Plans Approved
by Dara L. Miles
The city's plan to transform two underused areas of Queens into modern residential developments has moved a step closer to reality. At its stated meeting on Thursday, the City Council approved zoning changes that give the green light to the Willets Point and Hunters Point South redevelopment projects, which, combined, are the largest housing projects undertaken by the city in decades.
The more controversial plan, Willets Point in northeast Queens near Citi Field (and the old Shea Stadium), is a 61-acre swath with about 200 small businesses - many of them auto repair and body shops.
The Final Deal
The Willets Point plan, first introduced by the Bloomberg administration two years ago, includes thousands of residences, and a hotel and convention center, as well as shops and parks. The mayor's plan attracted immediate criticism because it displaced existing businesses at Willets Point and had no provision for affordable housing. Under pressure from the Queens City Council delegation and advocacy groups, city officials amended the plan to include housing for low- and middle-income families, incentives for displaced businesses and their employees, and protections against the use of eminent domain.
The final project was approved by a vote of 42 to 2 with one abstention.
Outgoing Councilmember Hiram Monserrate, whose district includes Willets Point, told reporters before the vote that he could finally get behind the plan because the council improved upon the mayor's original proposal. Yet, he insisted, he was never "totally opposed to the project."
"The reality is there is not one elected official or community leader or anyone that has any type of common sense that would argue that Willets Point should stay the way it is," he said. "Queens deserves better."
Many council members lauded the revised $3 billion Willets Point plan for the role it could play in easing Queen's affordable housing shortage, which Councilmember Eric Gioia termed a "deep, deep housing crisis."
"It's a crisis that is driving the middle class to the suburbs, and it's driving the poor into squalor," said Gioia, who represents the district that includes Hunters Point South -- a development that was approved along with Willets Point. As more immigrants move into Queens, he said, one sees increasing evidence of the crunch: one and two-family homes occupied by four and five families; one-bedroom apartments shared by three families; partitions dividing rooms and people sleeping on mattresses on kitchen floors.
Cleaning Up the Area
City officials say the redevelopment will not only provide much-needed housing but will also clean up heavily polluted Willets Point. That expense, they said, will be borne by a private developer still to be chosen. Councilmember Daniel Garodnick said the area's 62 acres are "in such a condition of distress that you would hardly recognize them as part of the City of New York."
But Councilmember Tony Avella, who voted "no," had a different take on the environmental issue. "The city created this situation," he said, by ignoring it for decades. "They never put in the sewers. They never put in the roads. If the city had done that, development would have taken care of itself."
In order to ease the pain of relocating the businesses and displacing some 1,700 workers at the site, the city has agreed to provide financial incentives for business owners and job retraining for employees, including one run by the Hotel Trades Council. The redevelopment, with its planned hotel and convention center, will create around 5,000 new union jobs, according to Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
Councilmember Bill de Blasio said the plan in its current incarnation will have a lasting impact, not only because it sharply increases the city's inventory of affordable housing but also because it benefits both moderate and low-income families.
"It's not just a good outcome for the community, it's precedent setting," he said. "It's a different approach that will inform everything else we do on affordable housing going forward."
Of the 5,500 homes planned for Willets Point, 1,925 will be designated "affordable." Of those, 29 percent will be reserved for households earning $45,000 a year or less (based on a family of four), 47 percent for households earning $38,000 and under, 11 percent will be rented to households earning $30,000 or less, and 13 percent will be for those with yearly incomes that do not exceed $23,000.
It will likely be years before the Willets Point redevelopment actually takes shape. The city has yet to acquire all of the property and may still resort to eminent domain for any holdouts. City officials say that they have successfully negotiated with the landowners to buy more than half of the acreage so far, and negotiations will continue to keep the use of eminent domain to a minimum.
Along with Avella, Councilmember Charles Barron voted against the project and Councilmember Letitia James abstained. Both Barron and James oppose the use of eminent domain.
Hunters Point South
Hunter's Point South in Long Island City is a proposed neighborhood of mid and high-rise residential buildings, with retail shops, a waterfront park, a school and other community facilities. Some 60 percent of the apartments will be set aside as affordable housing.
Hunters Point South will have 5,000 homes, with 3,000 of those reserved for households earning $126,000 or less. Eight hundred of those 3,000 apartments will be set aside for families with annual incomes of $61,400 a year or less, and 300 units will be reserved for low-income seniors. Another 225 units will be part of a program to promote home ownership among middle class New Yorkers.
Hunters Point was approved by a vote of 45 to 0.
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