Acting Queens Borough President shocks developers by issuing conditional disapproval on Flushing rezoning

Flile photo: Max Parrott/QNS

A controversial proposal to transform the Downtown Flushing waterfront got some pushback on Thursday when Interim Queens Borough President Sharon Lee issued a conditional recommendation against it.

Lee shocked the coalition of developers who own the property with her advisory vote, but her disapproval came with conditions that would presumedly allow the property owners and the city to make the project tenable in her view.

FWRA, a coalition of area developers, is proposing to create a special zoning district containing nine buildings in the 29-acre area along the creek in downtown Flushing. In addition to creating 1,725 new apartments and 879 new hotel units, it would result in a privately funded new road system, an expanded public waterfront park, and infrastructure upgrades to the existing sewer and drainage system.

“Downtown Flushing, however is not immune to the consequences of transformative large-scale new development that inadvertently leaves many behind, such as displacement of long-time residents and families — oftentimes the elderly and others on fixed-incomes,” Lee wrote in her recommendation. 

Lee gave conditions that the proposal would need to include a commitment to prevailing wage for workers on the project, a “good faith effort” to employ union labor, more units of affordable housing — particularly for seniors, and collaboration with the School Construction Authority to locate a school site in Downtown Flushing.

In her recommendation, she acknowledged that many of the criticisms raised in the public review process touched on larger systemic concerns of land use across the city, but she tried to focus issues more local to the immediate area.

“These people living closest to the SFWD will bear the brunt of the noise, dust, traffic and other construction-related inconveniences as the proposed project is built, with little chance to afford or secure some of the new housing that will be built in the new modern waterfront development,” she wrote.

The decision sparked an outcry from the developers, who shot back by criticizing Lee.

“We are stunned by the unusual manner in which the interim borough president would go against the wishes of the community. This project will create jobs, stimulate the Flushing economy which is suffering and bring activity and much-needed environmental cleanup to a vacant, blighted parcel of land,” FWRA wrote in its response. “These factors are why there is broad range of community support from local businesses and residents, but were unfortunately overlooked by someone who is not familiar with our community.”

A spokesperson for the borough president clarified that Lee worked under John Liu from 2006 to 2009 when he was the City Council member representing Flushing, and has worked in borough hall since 2014.

Joseph Sweeney, the chair of the Community Board 7 committee in charge of the project, was equally shocked by the decision. The community board, which stretches up to Whitestone and College Point, voted 30-8 in favor of the project in February. Sweeney, who testified in favor at the borough president’s public hearing over the rezoning, said he wished Lee had reached directly out to the community board prior to her decision.

“Perhaps politically it’s a bargaining chip. I don’t know,” said Sweeney of the conditions in Lee’s recommendation. “We made recommendations, she made recommendations. Perhaps they could fulfill her wishes. Of course that’s going to be up to them.”

Claire Shulman, former borough president and leader of an local development corporation that was in charge of environmental planning efforts leading up to this proposal, said that she was confused by the exact meaning of a conditional disapproval, which she did not issue in her capacity as borough president.

“The issue is whether they go in the ground as-of-right or whether they go into the plan with a better plan that City Planning designed,” said Shulman, who is legally barred from lobbying on the land use process based on her work with the LDC.

A conditional recommendation, however, is not unusual. This week Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams conditionally approved a rezoning in Industry City. The borough president’s say in the land use review process is only advisory, but often influential. Though Lee’s recommendation does not approve the current state for the proposal, it does outline a path forward for the project. 

The proposal will next go to before City Planning before hearing to a City Council vote.