Thursday, May 27, 2010

Real Sustainable Development in Flushing is Possible

We have been highlighting some of the drawbacks of the TDC/Rockefeller plan to develop the Muni Lot 1 in downtown Flushing-in particular, its flawed traffic analysis that downplays the kind of gridlock that the project will generate. But the weakness of the traffic study is only a symptom of the flawed nature of the project itself-the placement of 250,000 sq. ft. of, “destination retail,” at the center of the development.

It is this kind of retail shopping-auto and parking dependent-that makes Flushing Commons both untenable and a potential death knell to the traditional neighborhood shopping that has characterized this neighborhood for the better part of two decades. It is the destination retail that will gobble up a huge majority of the planned for parking spaces. Remember that the original call for 2,000 spaces-memorialized in an agreement between Doctoroff and Liu-has been whittled down to1,600.

According to traditional estimates, 250,000 sq. ft. of retail will demand around 1,000 parking spaces-but the developer’s EIS only assigns 300! for the retail. This is one slippery slope that could well end up depriving the existing neighborhood retailers of their parking lifeblood-but the EIS sees no “indirect displacement,” of current retail firms. Of course it doesn’t, because it provides only a cursory and inadequate review in its section on Socioeconomic Impacts.

That is why Flushing Commons needs a fuller and more independent economic impact study-and this will be on the agenda today of the Flushing BID. BID Chair Jim Gerson tells us that it is more than likely that the Peter Koo-led forces (new councilmember Koo) will turn down the funding request because Koo himself has promised to conduct (fund?) his own study; or perhaps one that is sponsored by the disinterested party over at EDC. Just what we need another, phony self serving,evaluation from the agency that has made such reviews famous.

The reason why the proposed development represents a knife in the heart of small business Flushing is not the usual variable of competition that is a staple of most of these environmental reviews. Gerson himself, in a correspondence with us, lays out the underlying concerns that devolve from parking and traffic:

I believe the impact will be devastating to local businesses especially during the evening hours. Just as in most other metropolitan areas or neighborhoods, there is a core focus which draws people and supports the non-core businesses. In the case of Flushing I believe the core is the quantity and variety of reasonably priced ethnic food (not unlike other "Chinatowns" around the world). These restaurants depend heavily on affordable parking. It is not logical to assume that a family will wait 10mins to 1/2 hour to take a bus with their family to go to dinner. The result will be a gradual, or perhaps precipitous decline in the number and variety of restaurants. Those that remain will have to raise their prices to accommodate "parking vouchers" from the developer, probably making them uncompetitive with other restaurant choices in Queens.

The restaurants are a source for many other kinds of shopping as people are already "there" and, one of the attractions of shopping in Flushing is that you can combine it with an interesting and affordable meal. Bus and subway service is diminishing especially during non rush hours. It is entirely unreasonable to expect that customers take public transportation to Flushing during those times. Affordable parking is the most important key to keeping Flushing vibrant.

During the day Flushing will lose their customers in one of two ways. Gridlock will frustrate some. Others will go to shop in nearby malls or other areas where parking is free. Our residential neighbors will not be immune from this either. As Flushing business declines, real estate values will tumble and the neighborhood will start to deteriorate resulting in an exodus of residents which will then compound the problems. Witness Jamaica another "transit hub" which took massive amounts of government support just to start to "come back".

The retail component of Flushing Commons is the toxic element in the development. A few blocks west, where Muss is developing his massive mixed use Sky View Parc, an additional 300,000 sq. ft. of big box retail is still yet to come. There is simply no need to compound the traffic and parking misery in the center of downtown Flushing-and in the process overwhelm what makes the character of the neighborhood so unique.

And Muss’s well chronicled troubles-at both leasing condominium as well as retail space-should be seen as a cautionary tale for Flushing Commons; particularly in the current recession. There are two dangerous possibilities inherent in what TDC wants to do. The first one-traffic and parking-we’ve already discussed. But the second possibility is equally ominous: the developer’s inability to tenant the property and a consequent drawn out deadly delay in the provision of parking for the existing stores.

Isn’t it time to do real planning in Flushing? In subsequent discussions we will lay out some alternative development concepts-ones that are more responsible and sustainable than the current proposal wending its way through the land use process. Kinda makes you wonder what the mayor was talking about when he described his “merit system-based” economic development policy.