Thursday, July 22, 2010

Straight Flush

The machinations behind the EDC-driven deal to build Flushing Commons are bizarre even by that agency's relatively high bar in that area. First it had an agreement with then council member John Liu that was abrogated and then EDC went ahead in lightening speed to reconfigure the size and scope of the development, certify it for ULURP, and quickly entice the newly elected-and clueless-local council member (who serendipitously is also best friends of the developer) to get out the pom poms and baton for this overly large intrusion into downtown Flushing.

As we have said before, it is one of our greatest disappointments to have waited thirty years for a legitimate small business owner to be elected to the city council, only to have that member be someone who was ready and eager to sell out the interests of his own entrepreneur cohort. Life's full of ironies, but this one is a bitter pill indeed. Peter Koo, who has disdained meeting with the opposition, proceeded at last Thursday's hearing to walk out of the hall before the opposition panel had a chance to lay out its case-and promptly went on vacation this week, precluding any possible meeting before the council vote.

That being said, the project is heading down to the wire with a number of unresolved issues-as the Queens Courier reports: "Next week a City Council committee is expected to vote on Flushing Commons – a major development located at the site of Municipal Lot 1 in downtown Flushing – but in the meantime, the city and developers are continuing a dialogue with members of the City Council trying to address any concerns. At a Land Use Committee hearing on Thursday, July 15, supporters and opponents of the project gave testimony while Council members questioned the developers about issues ranging from parking concerns to construction mitigation."

Land Use Chair Comrie has been trying to negotiate some changes to the plan-with a focus on the parking concerns of the local businesses: "Queens City Council member Leroy Comrie, who chairs the Land Use Committee, said the Council is still speaking with developers about finding more on-street parking and using the existing YMCA space for additional parking. In addition, he mentioned making sure there were adequate plans in place to ensure existing businesses were not decimated by the construction of the project."

On behalf of the Flushing Coalition we reiterated the concern with the project's density-and continue to press the council for a delay so that there will be more time to attempt to resolve some of the outstanding issues: "We’re continuing to press all of the issues,” said Richard Lipsky, a spokesperson for the group opposing Flushing Commons. “We think the project is too large.”

The issue of the impact of the project-parking and competition-remains a sticking point, with the EDC economic impact report eliding any of the substantive issues or concerns of the locals. As the Queens Tribune points out, small business owners are frightened: "Soon Ok Ko runs a garment alteration business on Union Street near Municipal Lot 1, the site where the project would be built. Macedonia Plaza, an affordable-housing complex to be voted on along with Flushing Commons that would be built on an adjacent lot owned by the Macedonia AME Church, has few if any vocal opponents. Ko said she has been unable to sleep as a result of her concerns about the negative impact Flushing Commons will have on neighboring businesses during its construction. “If this project goes through, I believe I will have almost no customers,” she said through an interpreter, summing up the concerns of a slew of local merchants who have voraciously opposed the project throughout the months-long public review process."

Ko's fears are apparently falling on deaf ears as far as the local council member is concerned, and it will be up to others to try to reduce the project's size and potential impact-and in this regard Queens BP Marshall made the following point: "Marshall mentioned several specific concerns she had, including compliance with guidelines regarding minority and women businesses and compensation for area merchants who will be affected by the construction. “As part of the business interruption plan, the city should explore various means to help downtown Flushing small businesses, including aggressive marketing strategies, tax relief programs and closer alternative parking spaces, or perhaps jitney shuttle service to and from the identified interim parking areas to help them during the construction period,” she said."

But, if such a plan is concocted as part of a negotiated settlement here, than the oversight authority needs to have some independent status apart from an EDC-through its actions and its impact study-that is hostile to the Flushing businesses (and to small businesses everywhere). A separate entity needs to be formed that is both representative and indigenous to the neighborhood-and to bring in worthless consultants like Cornerstone will do more harm than good; as well as eat up the funds that could best be devoted to the merchants.

The Flushing Coalition for Responsible Development has done a good job in a relatively short time frame in critiquing the development and raising the consciousness of the council members-particularly to the fatal flaws of an environmental review that is intellectually embarrassing as well as fraudulent. What the Coalition has demonstrated by doing so, is that the EIS is an anachronism, and EDC's consultants and their developer patrons know this only too well.

As a result of this knowledge, they churn out boilerplate cheese whiz-and proceed to laugh all the way to the bank.If the city council, after listening-and agreeing-to our economic and traffic critiques, could allow the Flushing Commons to get a green light to go forward, it is the strongest evidence possible that the entire expensive EIS exercise is a colossal waste of time and money. We will comment more on this at a later date-but it will be interesting to see how this all is worked out, and if we live long enough, how the 7 Line will absorb all of the Willets Point and Flushing Commons overflow.