City Council subcommittee approves Flushing waterfront rezoning after reaching deal with labor unions

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Rendering by Hill West Architects

The City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and its Committee on Land Use on Wednesday, Dec. 9, voted in favor of approving the Special Flushing Waterfront District — a 29-acre proposal that would bring waterfront access, environmental cleanup and new development to a decades-long isolated and polluted section of downtown Flushing.

The proposal will now move forward to the full council for a final vote on Thursday, Dec. 10. 

After delaying the vote on the matter in recent days, the council’s Subcommittee on Zoning had announced reaching a deal with the labor unions, Hotel Trades Council (HTC) and SEIU 32BJ, to ensure good jobs, community benefits and more for the Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD). 

According to Councilman Francisco Moya, chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning, it was imperative for the committee to reach a deal that met with the union’s demands. 

“As I stated from the very beginning, it would have been irresponsible to approve this application without commitments to provide good-paying jobs for local community members and deep community benefits like real affordable housing,” Moya said. “I have always stood by my brothers and sisters in labor, 32BJ and HTC.” 

The developers of SFWD — F&T Group, Young Nian Group, United Construction and Development Group known as FWRA LLC. — said they have worked tirelessly with community members for years to activate what is currently an empty and polluted waterfront and finally give Flushing the future it deserves.

“This is a pivotal vote for New York City’s economic recovery, especially for a hardworking immigrant community like Flushing,” the group said in a statement. “We deeply appreciate the Council members’ support in moving Flushing forward, particularly the leadership of Council member Peter Koo, Chairs Francisco Moya and Rafael Salamanca, and Speaker Corey Johnson.”

Meanwhile, community members and organization representatives against the project, delivered a petition with more than 1,000 signatures on Dec. 9 to Koo and an open letter to all City Council members urging them to reject the luxury development that they say will increase already high rents and taxes. Members of the delegation had asked a staff member at Koo’s office why the councilman had not returned emails, calls nor committed to meeting the community to hear their concerns. 

“We were stripped of our opportunity to hold our Council member accountable to those who will be most impacted, due to the pandemic,” said Seonae Byeon, lead housing organizer at Minkwon Center. “While residents continue to grieve and suffer through the pandemic, the City Council should not force this luxury development upon the community. Member deference should not be about the Council member; it should be about the people and the community in the neighborhood.” 

According to Koo, in recent months his office has been in deep discussions with the applicants, Land Use staff, labor groups, advocacy groups, Council members and other stakeholders, in hopes of reaching an agreement that would be realistic, fair and considerate of the community’s concerns at the City Planning and City Council Zoning Subcommittee public hearings. 

“For decades, planners have tried to activate this space in hopes of transforming it from a polluted brownfield into a publicly accessible waterfront connected to downtown Flushing that can be enjoyed by all,” Koo said. “As our city comes to terms with a second wave of COVID-19, rising unemployment, and a faltering economy, this project has the potential to revitalize the downtown Flushing economy at a time when we need it the most.”

The project calls for several community amenities, including the following:

Quality jobs: The developers reached an agreement with the unions SEIU 32BJ and the Hotels Trade Council to provide hundreds of residential, building service and hotel jobs throughout the entirety of the project.

Waterfront access: The applicants will seek to provide physical waterfront access to facilitate access for kayaking and opportunities for hands-on environmental education. Additionally, the project will double the amount of waterfront access to 40 feet and will include children’s playgrounds, public plazas, workout areas, art installments and pedestrian pathways, all open to the public.

Workforce development. At the request of Koo, the developers agreed to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Queens Chamber of Commerce to coordinate local and MWBE hiring of goods and labor, in particular with residents of neighboring NYCHA developments at Bland Houses and Latimer Gardens.

Small business support: The applicant has signed a MOU with the Downtown Flushing Transit Business Improvement District to contribute $2 million to support local small businesses over the next 10 years.

Affordable housing: Thirty percent of the units on the rezoned area on Site 4 will be affordable under the administration’s MIH guidelines. The applicants have also entered into an agreement with the city to further engage in good faith discussions over a three-year period with HPD, the New York City Council and other governmental entities to secure financing and funding in order to maximize the amount of affordable housing on site.

Waterfront education and programming: The applicants will enter into a partnership with local environmental education nonprofits to educate and engage area students and residents. Organizations engaged thus far include, but are not limited to, the Waterfront Alliance and City Parks Foundation.

Community Facility Space: The development will include approximately 20,000 square feet of community facility space, including a flexible 1,000-square-foot space for the La Jornada food pantry dedicated to child mentoring programs and senior recreational use. This is in addition to numerous financial contributions and equipment donations to help support the pantry’s mission.

Johnson said the SFWD project will “bring good jobs, open space for the public, and economic opportunity for Queens” as the city begins to recover from the pandemic and the financial crisis it has caused. 

Salamanca, chair of the Land Use Committee, said the deal will pave the way for hundreds of permanent well-paying union jobs in the downtown Flushing area.

Furthermore, the project will ensure that the Flushing Creek and the accompanying waterfront district, an area long contaminated by industrial uses, will be cleaned up and revitalized so that the community can enjoy new waterfront access, green spaces, public plazas and playgrounds for years to come,” Salamanca said. 

Rich Maroko, President of HTC, said they’re sincerely grateful to the City Council for its leadership in ensuring that the project proceeds responsibly with respect to labor. 

“We are pleased that the developers of this project came to the table and negotiated an agreement covering workers at all hotel sites associated with this project. HTC looks forward to promoting the success of this project by ensuring hotel workers are respected at these hotels,” Maroko said. 

Kyle Bragg, president of SEIU 32BJ, said they’re also extremely pleased that the rezoning comes with a commitment to provide prevailing wage jobs for the building service workers.  

“Now more than ever, working people in Flushing need employment opportunities with family-sustaining wages, quality healthcare and retirement security,” Bragg said. “We believe that the building service jobs created by the Special Flushing Waterfront District will be critical to ensuring an inclusive recovery in Queens that lifts up frontline workers and their families.”

Thomas Grech, president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said they’re excited to work with the developers, SEIU 32BJ and the Hotels Trade Council to ensure that local firms and residents benefit from the project, especially MWBEs, and that residents of the Bland House and Latimer Gardens can benefit from the employment opportunities created.

“The news of an agreement of the special Flushing Waterfront District will make an already vibrant neighborhood an even greater place to live, work, raise a family and start a business,” Grech said. “By revitalizing 29 acres of waterfront land, this project will create thousands of good-paying jobs and workforce development opportunities for local residents, bring billions in private investment to the community, generate millions in tax revenue for the city and state and catalyze economic activity that supports existing small businesses in Flushing.

Grech congratulated Koo for his vision and leadership, and thanked Johnson, Moya and Salamanca for their hard work.

“The Queens Chamber looks forward to partnering with our newly elected Borough President Donovan Richards to see this project through from shovel-ready to completion. We also pause to think of and reflect on the immense contribution that our late Borough President Claire Shulman made to this project. This news is a game changer for Queens and the entire region,” Grech said.