Thursday, May 13, 2010

Outpouring Against Flushing Commons

A strong showing of opposition came out yesterday at the City Planning Commission to protest the development proposed at Flushing Commons. Brandishing signs that read, "Don't Choke Flushing," and "Give Me Parking, or Give Me Death," around eighty small business owners and community residents jammed the hearing room at 22 Reade Street to tell the planning commissioners why Flushing Commons is such a bad deal.

As we told the Commission in a lively exchange: "The plan to build well over a million square feet of commercial and residential development on top of the Municipal Lot 1 in downtown Flushing makes little planning or economic development sense; and if the plan does go forward it will severely exacerbate the already intolerable traffic conditions-not only in downtown Flushing but in the surrounding communities as well. In addition, the current plan will serious dislocate and destabilize the Flushing small business community-causing job losses that will not be made up by any benefits predicted for the Flushing Commons project."

Also testifying on behalf of the locals was planner Paul Graziano, who made a strong case that EDC-employing a bait and switch tactic-had allowed the developer to dramatically alter the original plan that had been endorsed by then council member, and now city comptroller, John Liu. Graziano's group, REDO, is joining with the Flushing Coalition for Responsible Development to continue the mobilizing effort in the community against the project.

Clearly, however, traffic parking issues are a major concern of the local civic and business groups-something that StreetsBlog has addressed: "What's particularly striking about EDC's math is that it's completely isolated from all other considerations. The strain on Flushing's streets, which are already clogged with congestion, wasn't a factor. The PlaNYC goal of reducing transportation emissions by 44 percent by 2030 wasn't a factor. Officials apparently never stopped to think about the potential housing, retail or community uses that could have been built instead of some of the 500,000 square feet given to vehicle storage. Even the project's financial feasibility, which we noted yesterday was threatened by such a large parking mandate, wasn't a factor."

But the blog's worry about too much parking is diametrically opposed by the locals who are crying out for more. What everyone seems to agree on, is that the development will overwhelm the local road network-with or without more parking. This is expressed by Flushing BID head Jim Gerson: ""Something doesn’t add up,” said Flushing BID Chairman James Gerson, “and I guess the biggest issue that concerns us is that these negotiations and this change to the plan took place without any community input whatsoever." Gerson proposed a resolution that calls for the original 2,000 public parking spots and permanently capped parking rates that were agreed upon while now-comptroller John Liu was still representing the district in the City Council. He said the Flushing BID is working with a consultant to determine the breadth of the economic impact that the project will have on local merchants."

And all of the businesses are fearful of the economic damage that the development could cause: "According to Gerson, there is a letter from the deputy mayor that says there will be $2 million in “business assistance” for affected businesses, but there’s no plan on how that money will be distributed nor any analysis of whether that amount is even sufficient. The resolution also demands a contingency plan at a time when many projects around the city and around the country are being stalled as a result of the uncertain economic climate. “The only thing worse than a dead project is a hole in the ground,” said Gerson. “It’s not unreasonable to expect that the city provide some contingency plan so that we don’t get stuck with a hole in the ground and so far the issue has not been addressed at all."

For her part, Queens BP Helen Marshall-who gave her approval for the plan a few weeks ago-also sees the need to assist local business. As the Queens Tribune reports: "Marshall plans to co-chair a Downtown Flushing Task Force with Councilman Peter Koo (R-Flushing). The group will meet with city agencies and local organizations to brainstorm ways to mitigate the economic impact of Flushing Commons’ construction on existing businesses. Those same businesses are eying a possible helping hand from Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing), who is currently exploring tax abatement options to help businesses affected by the project. The plan would offer tax relief to business owners able to prove a noticeable change in their bottom line as a result of the project’s construction."

Marshal is also concerned about traffic and parking, but her ideas about proper mitigation are, in our view, de minimis: "Borough President Helen Marshall approved the $800 million mixed-use development with several stipulations addressing concerns raised during the borough board’s public hearing April 20. The stipulations notably tackle Flushing Commons’ most contentious issue: parking. Marshall requested long-term parking rates be capped closer to the current municipal parking fee for longer than the currently-planned five years. “Public parking must be affordable to sustain and support the existing local small businesses which have invested heavily in their trust of the future economic health of Downtown Flushing,” she said. The Beep also requested traffic enforcement agents be posted at the intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and Main Street during the intersection’s busiest hours."

With the project EIS predicting gridlock conditions with multi-minute waits at certain intersections, more traffic agents is no real solution. As traffic expert Brian Ketcham's testimony to the Commission pointed out: "The developer has already reported that congestion levels with the project will be severe in Downtown Flushing and that most of the traffic problems caused by the project cannot be mitigated. The DEIS reports huge impacts at Downtown Flushing intersections such as at Northern Blvd. and Main Street where northbound left turn vehicle delay is increased from 7 minutes to 14 minutes or at Roosevelt Avenue and Union Street where the southbound right turn delay increases from 6 minutes to 18 minutes—I emphasize minutes of delay not seconds meaning severe gridlocked conditions."

More traffic agents? We don't think so. Ultimately, however, it is the duplicity of the agency that gets everyone riled up-dramatizing just how unreliable it is to trust any deal made with EDC. We'll give Comptroller Liu the last word on why he no longer supports this project: "Liu made some of his strongest remarks so far about recent developments in the saga of the $800 million Flushing Commons mixed-use project that Community Board 7 recently approved for the site on Municipal Lot 1 in downtown Flushing. He was the councilman for the neighborhood and supported the project when initial plans were drawn up between the city and the project’s developer in 2005. The plans called for the project to include at least 2,000 parking spaces, a youth center and capped parking rates. Less than a year later, the plans had been amended to eliminate such provisions and Liu withdrew his support. “An agreement with the community is an agreement with the community, and if you’re not going to accommodate that, you have to go back to the drawing board,” he said."