Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Resigned to Koo's Coup

We have been discussing the impact that the Flushing Commons project would have on the area’s neighborhood merchants-and the need to insure that the development, if it does go forward, does so in a way that allows the 400 Korean and Chinese merchants to not only survive, but thrive. Missing from the EDC-sponsored evaluation of the planned 1,000,000 square feet of development, is any comprehensive analysis of the project’s small business impact.

In order to address this gap in the evaluation of the merits of Flushing Commons the Flushing BID, chaired since its inception by Jim Gerson, proposed an independent economic impact statement-to be sponsored by, and paid for by the BID. Last Thursday, however, the BID met and its full board of directors, spearheaded by members apparently loyal to council member Peter Koo, voted down the idea-and Gerson promptly tendered his resignation.

The Koo forces claimed that such a study was beyond the normal scope of a BID-which should, in their view, adhere to the Lady Bird Johnson school of beautification politics, and stick to planting trees and cleaning the sidewalks. They also posited a Koo sponsored study, done in all likelihood by EDC selected consultants with understood marching orders; as well as little affinity for the situation of neighborhood store owners.

This, in our view, is a truly sad situation because Koo is the quintessential small businessman-the owner of five area drug stores. However, it now appears that Koo has become co-opted by his relationship with the developer TDC, and no longer can be seen as a defender of small business interests. That TDC is also in the running for the development of Willets Point, means that Koo has become fully aligned against the immigrant small business community-since so many of the Willets Point workers are Hispanic migrants to this country.

But we understand why Koo wouldn’t want a truly independent study of Flushing Commons’ potential to do grievous harm to the neighborhood. It would underscore just how flawed this proposed development truly is-and, in particular, how harmful and unnecessary the 250,000 sq. ft. of retail space that the project provides for.

In our view, Flushing Commons has way more collateral damages than benefits. In order for this project to be fully in the public interest, the retail space should be removed and an affordable housing component added. The transforming of the 250,000 sq. ft. of retail into an affordable housing component will dramatically lessen the parking needs and traffic impacts of the project (Affordable housing residents own less cars than residents of other types of housing), and would alleviate is negative impacts on the vibrant but struggling small business community.

But for that to happen we will need to continue to rally the local community in order to demonstrate that council member Koo is not representing his constituents if he continues to be an uncritical supporter of the project. The resignation of Gerson should be seen as a call to arms-and we will now allow Gerson to fully explain why he felt the need to give up his post.

Gerson Statement

I was the first Chair of the Flushing BID upon its formation in 2004. I was born in Elmhurst and lived there for 14 years. Through three generations and for over 50 years my family has owned a building in downtown Flushing. I care deeply about Flushing, and have come to understand its needs-particularly of its small business community. Therefore, I take my responsibility to the merchants and property owners of Flushing very seriously.

The BID faced its first serious and controversial issue when confronted with the impact of the construction of Flushing Commons. My approach was to offer three resolutions which were approved by the BID Board of Directors.

The first resolution called for a business assistance program based on an analysis of the impacts of construction. The second called for restoration of the City’s previously agreed parking capacity and rate cap.. The third resolution called for a contingency plan for completion of the project before the land was transferred.

Since that time the developer has lobbied extensively to emasculate these objectives with City agencies and Board members. The result has been that a previously harmonious board became highly factionalized and dysfunctional. One direct impact was the resignation of our highly competent and well liked executive director who supported these objectives but was becoming increasingly marginalized as a result.

The precipitating event for my resignation as Chairman of the BID was the Board’s decision last week to turn down my proposal for an independent analysis of the economic impact of construction on area merchants; and rely instead on the highly questionable representations of the staff of council member Koo that such a study could be conducted by either his office or by EDC.

At that point it became clear to me that I could be more candid and more effective advancing what I believe in, by working with other community groups outside of the confines of the BID. I have no confidence that a study conducted by the same people who are proposing and/or supporting the current unrealistic plans will be either fair or helpful.

I believe the impact of Flushing Commons as presently proposed 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. 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. Flushing Commons, as now conceived by TDC, is as unsustainable a project as anyone could imagine. It needs to be thoroughly altered so that the interests of the small businesses of Flushing and its neighboring communities are maintained.