By Roz Liston
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz supports affordable housing but wants the communities in Queens to have a greater role in the rezoning process to accomplish the mayor’s ambitious program.
In a wide-ranging interview with Community News Group, the parent of the TimesLedger Newspapers, Katz pointed out the de Blasio administration has not called for any downzoning in its proposals to create denser neighborhoods to make way for 200,000 affordable units.
The mayor’s plan requires new housing to include a certain percentage of below-market units for seniors and low-income residents and higher building heights, among other details.
“One of my arguments with the City Planning Commission is you haven’t downzoned anything,” Katz told the CNG Editors Roundtable at the company’s Brooklyn headquarters last Friday. “One-family row houses are turning into two- and three-family homes—this is the character that you want to keep.”
Over the past 12 years Queens has negotiated 40 downzonings to protect neighborhoods. Many were rezoned when she chaired the City Council’s Land Use Committee.
Katz said she rejected the mayor’s plan because she thinks the new rezonings should be carried out on a community-by-community basis rather than through a blanket approach.
The first-term borough president also opposed the mayor’s zoning proposal which does not require parking spaces for affordable housing built within a half mile of a transit zone.
“Just because you stop building parking in Queens doesn’t mean we’re not going to drive,” Katz said. “We don’t have subways for two-thirds of the borough.”
Despite her reservations about the proposals, she praised Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“He is an amazing guy in taking on issues nobody else wanted to take on,” Katz said. “On affordable housing I don’t agree with him 100 percent, but the whole city is talking about it.”
After her visit, the City Council this week modified the mayor’s original plan, which the overwhelming majority of Queens community boards opposed. A Council vote is expected shortly.
Transportation—subways, light rail and air travel—is a major priority in the borough, known as a transit desert.
Asked how the No. 7 line can support rapid expansion plans for Flushing and Long Island City real estate, she said two new LIRR stations planned in Elmhurst and Sunnyside will make a big difference. The MTA is also renovating several stations along the 7 line, among the 16 chosen for upgrades in Queens.
“We built this entire world around the 7 train,” Katz said, spurring the development of Long Island City, cultural venues and restaurants. “Then we stopped it every other weekend,” she said, calling the MTA shutdowns “a bad joke.”
She is planning to tour the route proposed for the Queens/Brooklyn trolley to see how much space it would take up on the streets and whether the service would run into problems competing with vehicular traffic and bus lanes.
“Synergy between the two boroughs is important and would create a market unto itself,” she said.
Katz, who serves on the redesign commission for LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, said the Recommendation for Proposals for the central terminal at LaGuardia has just been issued. Plans for the parking lot are progressing and a people mover inside pods to shuttle passengers from one terminal to another is part of the massive overhaul.
“We’re not expanding or adding runways,” she said emphatically.
A key component of the LaGuardia redesign is an elevated rail line which would transport passengers between the airport and the Mets-Willets Point stop, used by both the LIRR and the No. 7
As the chief executive of the country’s most diverse county, Katz said Queens does a good job of managing the vibrant culture created by residents from 120 countries speaking 130 different languages.
But diversity also brings challenges.
Her office holds a general assembly once a month for groups representing almost every country to discuss possible hate crimes, problems that may exist in certain schools and other issues facing immigrant communities. There is also an immigration task force that notifies nonprofits about any hate crimes.
Katz said Borough Hall has worked with Muslim groups since she took office and has held events to mark Ramadan, Diwali and other ethnic holidays to celebrate Queens’ rich diversity.
“The more we show up and pay tribute, the better it is for the whole borough,” she said.