By Mark Hallum
Borough President Melinda Katz issued a recommendation Thursday to approve a zoning change that would allow developers to build 13 stories instead of 10 on an empty lot in Elmhurst with a set of conditions.
City Planning will now make the final decision whether or not to allow the widely opposed building slated for 40 percent affordable housing and a Target center.
The developers changed recently course on the project by adjusting the rental rates they intended to establish for low-income residents after public outcry at a series of advisory board meetings.
Sun Equity Partners and Heskel Group revealed their revised plan for the 13-story housing and retail structure, with a Target store slated for the ground level, to an advisory land use hearing before Queens Borough President Melinda Katz May 3.
Katz only request that the developers maintain a minimum of 30 percent affordable units, manage traffic congestion and that the Target hire neighborhood residents only.
Community Board 4 had already voted against the requested zoning change to allow the developers to build three stories taller than the 10-story cap at 40-31 82nd St. Instead, CB 4 recommended the City Planning downzone the property to prevent gentrification.
At the May 3 hearing, attended by anti-gentrification groups from western Queens, Sun Equity attorney Nora Martins said they were shooting to accommodate $41,000 annual median income combined per household now as opposed to the earlier proposed $61,000.
“We decided to go with a deeper affordability option under the mandatory inclusionary housing program, which requires 20 percent of that to be an average of 40 percent annual median income, which is considered very low income,” Martins said. “We heard the feedback from the community and we’ve been speaking with the Council member and the borough president, and we understand that we have to serve this community as part of this project.”
But the hearing at Borough Hall, although well-attended by opponents of the housing and retail structure slated for a Target store, was in stark contrast to the March CB 4 meeting, which saw the auditorium at Elmhurst Hospital packed with protesters.
This time supporters of the housing and retail structure had the majority with 19 out the 31 public speakers arguing there is not enough of the current housing stock, which is old and deteriorating, to support the crowded neighborhood, while Target could bring economic benefits.
Bishop Mitchell Taylor, the CEO of Urban Upbound, which advocates for affordable housing, backed the plan because of the overcrowding in Elmhurst, where he said “people are living on top of each other in the neighborhood.”
Queens Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tom Grech supported the plan for its potential to create jobs.
“From our back and forth with the folks involved, over retail 200 jobs [are expected from the Target location] in an environment where retail is under assault in many parts of the country for lots different reasons, but we support this project based upon the inclusionary housing… as well as the community space being offered,” Grech said.
City Councilman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights) issued a letter to Katz’s office in support of the project as his predecessor Julissa Ferreras-Copeland did, but his support was only based on the developers’ agreement to meet more affordable rates.
Queens Neighborhoods United members were also at the hearing in force to challenge the perception that the Target would create jobs while bringing new and affordable living arrangements.
“I will see my community completely displaced if this rezoning happens,” said Tania Mattos, organizer for QNU, who claimed to have over 600 petition signatures and 15 business owners from 82nd Street who are opposed to the Target project. “If there is a Target, we’re going to boycott that Target.”
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a candidate for Congress facing U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) in the upcoming primary election, said she opposed the project because there are three times the amount of vacant units in the city as there are homeless people, which ranges between 60,000 and 70,000.
“The problem isn’t space, its unaffordability,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “[Forty] percent of these units are unaffordable, that means that  percent of the people in this community will not be able to live here or to stay, which is the core of the problem of displacement.”
Those against the rezoning remembered the movie theater that used to occupy the space as one of the few in the city to offer Spanish subtitles for the heavy Latino population in the area. The building formerly occupied by the theater is no longer standing.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall