Thursday, July 08, 2010

Planning to Fail

Tom Angotti has a thoughtful essay on the flaws in the ULURP process-a subject that is dear to our hearts. We will leave a fuller discussion of Angotti's points to a later date, but his discussion of the way in which the process bypasses significant community stakeholders has a particular resonance for the fight over Flushing Commons.

The WSJ picks this up today in its report on the Angotti analysis: "Agnotti points out that many land-use agreements are currently hashed out on an ad hoc basis between local politicians and developers in a way that can leave residents almost entirely on the sidelines:

In recent years, City Hall has taken to writing up extensive agreements with community representatives — let’s call them side agreements — that set out in advance conditions for community approval of the proposed project or rezoning. These are negotiated before and during the land use review period. And the written agreements are not subject to oversight nor are they necessarily enforceable.

For example, a July 11, 2005 memorandum from then-Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff to then-City Council Member John Liu committed to conditions for the Flushing Commons project in Queens. The project is currently at the final stage of review awaiting a City Council vote. Yet City Hall changed its mind about major details of the project after Doctoroff left government and John Liu left the City Council to run for comptroller. The validity of the agreement is uncertain."

Well, we're not sure either of the legal validity of this MOU, but we are sure that it represents bad faith, and a salient example of how EDC operates in a totally underhanded fashion. Once it decided that it wanted to change the terms of the agreement, the agency should have allowed for a period of community review before it ran to certify the project for land use review. Because it didn't, the Queens Civic Congress, an umbrella group representing more than 100 local community organizations, voted to oppose the development.

That said, the new and unimproved plan for Flushing Commons is fatally flawed. What follows is the bill of particulars as to why the development needs to be substantially altered-or, if not, sent back to the drawing board-so that it doesn't cause irrevocable harm to the vital small businesses of Flushing:

Serious Concerns in the Environmental Review of Flushing Commons

1- The DEIS assumed a one-way pairing of Main/Union Sts. This plan has been abandoned which will likely result in substantially more gridlock. No analysis of the new traffic patterns was performed;

2- There are significant inconsistencies in the FEIS regarding how the retail portion of the space will be used (36,000 sq. ft. "destination retail" in Traffic vs. 120,000 in Socioeconomic). You simply cannot have a credible impact analysis that is self-contradictory; by using less “destination retail” in the Traffic analysis than what is reported in the Socioeconomic analysis, the FEIS substantially underestimates either traffic generation on the one hand, or the effect on small businesses in the community on the other;

3- The traffic analysis done by Brian Ketcham, the engineer hired by the Flushing Coalition, has shown that the FEIS substantially underestimates the likely gridlock in Downtown Flushing and substantially underestimates the parking required for the project and the community. In particular, the developer’s traffic analysis severely under reports the spillover Willets Point traffic, and has no analysis of the soon to be opened retail mall at Main and Roosevelt-among its numerous flaws and omissions;

4- An independent report prepared by the Center for Community Planning and Development at Hunter College has determined that there are 2,132 small businesses in the affected area vs. 970 in the FEIS. The FEIS counted only storefronts and ignored mall-type locations and offices-a further indication of the shoddy and slipshod kind of review that was conducted by the developer;

5- The Traffic analysis does not account for the approximately 90 projects planned or under construction in the area-or for the impact that these projects will have, not only on local roads and arterials; but also on the severely challenged mass transit infrastructure. (viz. Brian Ketcham study)

Negative Small Business Impacts

1 -The FEIS does not analyze the effects of the very large increase in parking rates or gridlock on the local business community or residents
2 –The developer will have near monopolistic control of parking north of Roosevelt Ave. and probably control close to 60% of all the parking in Downtown Flushing. By selling vouchers he can impose a “tax” on local businesses or by refusing, he can selectively drive businesses to extinction

3- As provided in the letter agreement between then Council Member John Liu and then Deputy Mayor Doctoroff there was a permanent cap on parking rates (subject to inflation). The current proposal provides no cap on rates whatsoever after two years of operation. Both the Community Board and Borough President have stipulated that parking rates should be limited.

4-Mr. Ketcham’s study has shown that over 2,200 spaces are needed if the project proceeds as proposed vs. 1,600 provided in the current plan (study available).

5- There has been no analysis of the kind of potentially devastating impact during construction that the three year closure of Muni Lot 1 will have on area small businesses. The requirements of the 2,132 businesses that will be affected during construction have not been analyzed. But clearly, the $2 million that have been set aside-less than $1 per business per day-is not nearly adequate for their needs.

Community Impact Issues

1-Almost unanimously area civic associations have expressed their opposition to the project as proposed. These include the Queens Civic Congress; Mitchell Linden Civic Association; Auburndale Improvement Association; Broadway Flushing Homeowners Association; Kissena Park Civic Association; North East Flushing Civic Association; Sheng Rainbow Plaza Condominium; The Towers Condominium and many many others. The issues of most concern are gridlock and the extremely dense and high development. (Their position paper, REDO, is available on request)

2-The developer has provided no affordable housing. While there is expected to 140 units of affordable housing on the site, this will be provided by another developer.

3-While the developer will receive substantial tax and purchase price benefits and displace many small businesses there is no provision for a living wage for workers. Displacing family businesses with substandard wages is both grossly unfair and bad public policy.

4-By including over 500,000 square feet of retail and commercial space the project will severely overtax our infrastructure, subways, streets and even our sidewalks. Our subway station is already the busiest in the system outside of Manhattan and is “gridlocked” during rush hours. The corner of Roosevelt Ave. and Main St. is the third busiest pedestrian thoroughfare in the City (after Times Sq. and Herald Sq.) and merely walking on the street is a challenge especially for the elderly. The original, now abandoned, traffic plan provided for sidewalk widening.

5-Probable human remains on the site.

6- Effects on neighborhood churches which will lose free parking on Sundays

Process Issues

1- EDC has ignored the conditions agreed to and endorsed by then local Council Member (John Liu) and signed by Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff within three weeks of his CM Liu becoming Comptroller. This action suggests an untenable precedent for agreements between Council Members and the City. Furthermore, this clearly did not give enough time for the new Member to become fully informed, understand the issues, and receive community input.
2- The developer's representation of why he can't expand the parking, nor build a movie theater, nor cap parking rates, etc. has never been examined by independent experts or, as far as we know, by anyone. When questioned, the response is always that the issue is economic-but that shouldn’t be determinative if the amenities and commitments being removed are essential for the community; and/or based on representations in response to an EDC RFP.

3-Failure to require the developer to adhere to the terms of the original RFP after selection has resulted in a biased and faulty bidding process.

4- There is no provision for a timetable in the EDC agreements with the developer, making the community vulnerable to delays or an outright default that could leave the lot abandoned for needed parking utilization. We believe that the City should have repossession remedies or escrow money to insure timely completion of the project according to agreed plans.

What needs to be done

Given the many issues raised, the substantial community opposition, the likelihood of permanent damage to a thriving but fragile neighborhood the best solution at this point is to send the project back to the drawing boards for a full and fair review with appropriate analysis and community representation, preserving the best of the project and changing the damaging parts.

Absent this remedy, a serious and significant overhaul of the current proposal is needed-one that will reduce the project’s density by removing much of the commercial and retail space. Replacing this space with affordable housing will serve to mitigate the calamitous traffic and parking impacts, while at the same time, providing the community with a much needed housing resource.