Queens borough president, councilwoman clash during City Council hearing on Innovation QNS project in Astoria

City Council
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and Councilwoman Julie Won have developed a rift that went public, and on the record, during a City Council hearing on the Innovation QNS proposal. (Photo by Adrian Childress)

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and Councilwoman Julie Won went head-to-head during a public hearing on the proposed $2 billion Innovation QNS project in Astoria before the Committee on Zoning and Franchises on Wednesday, Oct. 19.

Before Richards and Won clashed, the developers behind the project — Silverstein Properties, BedRock and Kaufman Astoria Studios, who are seeking a rezoning of the area which the City Council will vote on next month — delivered testimony on the merits of their proposal.

The mixed-use development would remake a five-block section centered on Steinway Street with 12 residential towers containing 2,800 new apartments, 1,100 of which would be affordable.

Innovation QNS would be built on sites that are currently used as private surface parking or for big box stores,” Kaufman Astoria Studios Tracy Capune said. “Our sites are currently occupied by almost no housing.”

Jay Martin, a partner with BedRock Real Estate Partners, said the proposal is good for the community and good for the city.

“Innovation QNS will deliver over 2,800 homes, a massive number in a city that is certainly housing starved, and of that 2,800 over 1,100 will be permanently affordable, including 500 that will be deeply affordable,” Martin said. “We believe that our economic projections will deliver 1,700 permanent jobs compared to roughly 170 that exist in that area today. And we’ll be delivering through the additional economic activity a projected $475 million of additional tax revenue to the city of New York, a city that is looking at looming deficits.”

If the rezoning application is rejected by the City Council, he warned the area would remain parking lots and warehouses. That notion was unacceptable to Richards.

“We are in the midst of a housing crisis in Queens County, and I’ll be damned if we’re going to settle for parking lots and tow pound lots in Queens County during a housing crisis,” the borough president declared.

After ruling against the project in August citing affordability, Richards adjusted his stance after the developers raised the number of affordable units to 40% after an initial figure of just 25%. He also criticized Councilwoman Julie Won for her continued opposition, as well as her demand of 55% affordability saying the two of them had agreed to negotiate for 40% affordability.

“I know you’re new here,” Richards said. “I support the councilwoman and her push in the community for more, but at the end of the day, the rubber has to meet the road and we have to make a decision. We are in a state of emergency, my friends.”

Won was unfazed.

“I just want to push back with all due respect but we can’t oversimplify supply and demand and believe in the trickle-down economics is going to bring affordable housing for working-class people,” Won said.

She got plenty of support for her opposition to the project during the public testimony position of the hearing.

Carolina Korth, the co-founder of the Astoria is Not for Sale coalition, thanked Won for showing commendable courage against the developers.

“I live just four blocks from the proposed development site and I know my community very well,” she said. “Building a five-block mega-development that is majority luxury in this community is an absolute affront to racial and housing justice. We need to stop letting developers make windfall profits off our backs.”

Joanna Carpenter is an artist and freelancer who has lived in Astoria for 13 years right next to the proposed development.

“We do have dire housing and affordability issues that cannot and will not be solved by billionaire developers just plopping in shiny homogenized high-rises, full stop,” she said. “Our community of immigrants and artists and working families and small businesses deserve better.”

Innovation QNS had support during the hearing from union members and business leaders.

“We are encouraged by the work that many of our elected officials have done to move important projects like Hallets Point in Astoria, the Flushing waterfront development and the Bruckner Boulevard rezoning in the Bronx forward,” Queens Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Grech said. “We need to maintain this momentum and approve the Innovation QNS project that will create 1,100 affordable units in an area that is perfectly suited for development. The chamber is proud to stand with our Borough President Donovan Richards, our friends in organized labor, and residents of western Queens to encourage the Council to green light this important project.”

Before the hearing, dueling rallies took over the steps of City Hall Wednesday morning, one for and the other against the controversial megadevelopment.

On one side of the debate was Richards, who stood with powerful labor unions like 32BJ SEIU and Laborers Local 79. On the other side was Won, who was joined by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and U.S. Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens).