Thursday, July 15, 2010

Flushing Commons Hearing

In today's land use hearing on the proposed Fleshing Commons project, the supporters and opponents of the development were given the opportunity to state their case-although the supporters did get the lion's share of the time, taking up over two hours before an opponent panel was brought in to voice objections to the mega-development. But, that being said, hats off to subcommittee chair Mark Weprin and the other members for their affording the lead panel of opponents a gracious amount of time to be heard on this controversial issue.

A keynote of the opposition viewpoint, were the two rebuttal studies that were commissioned by the Flushing Coalition for Responsible Development-one on traffic by Brian Ketcham; the other an economic impact study done by Hunter College's Brian Paul-that laid out a harsh critique of the EDC-sponsored work done by the usual suspect, AKRF. In the first instance, Ketcham lays out in full detail how the economic development agency low balls traffic estimates and makes different-and contradictory-assertions (as we have highlighted), depending on the audience anticipated.

In the case of the Hunter College report-something we have already touched on-Brian Paul demonstrates how EDC fails to accurately count the number of businesses, while misleading the folks about the nature-and competitive nature-of the proposed businesses at the development. This report is featured in this week's issue of the Jamaica Times:

"That report came out earlier this month and some of its findings are fueling a new round of concerns about the gigantic project, which is slated to be built over the current site of Municipal Lot 1 and accompanied by the Macedonia Plaza affordable housing building...Jim Gerson, co-president of the Flushing Coalition for Responsible Development, said the Hunter College study should be taken into consideration and that the project should not move forward as planned because the study shows that Flushing Commons will cause many lost jobs, put local merchants out of business and more.“The study shows that there’s more than twice as many businesses as the [Environmental Impact Study] had counted. Contrary to what the EIS says, the businesses that go into Flushing Commons will be highly competitive, according to the study, and there will be a loss of as many as 2,000 existing jobs,” Gerson said. “My personal opinion is that it’ll be higher. That’s the number they use. The reason I think it will be higher is because no one has looked at the impact of the loss of parking and the increase in parking rates and gridlock that will be created by Flushing Commons.”

But even before our all star panel of Lipsky, Gerson, Barrison and Graziano got to testify, the council members did a good job of questioning EDC and the developer. We will single out, Chair Weprin, CM Seabrook, CM Reyna, CM Chin, and especially CM Halloran who has absorbed all of the material-both pro and con. Reyna and Chin in particular, focused on the small business issues that are reflected in the Hunter College report.

We should also point out that Leroy Comrie, the chair of the full land use committee, who appears to be less worried about the economic impact issue, nevertheless raised-and did so quite forcefully-the nettlesome question of the adequacy of the proposed parking; and the sufficiency of the EDC slush fund that has been proposed to help small business in the construction phase and beyond-a point that Reyna was extremely concerned with in her capacity as chair of the council's small business committee. Comrie told EDC that there were unresolved issues that needed to be addressed before the council votes later this month.

Which  brings us to a peeve of ours-the certification of land use items so that their final resolution will occur during the summer months. This inevitably leads to a truncated review process that is most unfair to opponents who lack the resources of EDC. Here's the Jamaica Times on the schedule: "The City Planning Commission voted to approve the project June 23 and the Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises is holding a public hearing on the plan this Thursday. The subcommittee plans to vote on the proposal July 27, after which it will go on to the Land Use Committee July 28 and finally be either approved or denied by the Council July 29, according to current planned timelines."

If the CPC passed this application June, 23rd, there is at least three additional weeks for the council to deliberate on this project before having to finally vote-and given the contentious issues of parking, traffic, economic impact and MWBE-that additional time seems warranted. If a full land use and council vote can't be scheduled for August, that can only mean that it is difficult for the legislature to insure that its members will all be present in the latter days of summer. If true, this is unfortunate-but if not, the council should consider adding some time for the negotiations on this development to take place.

But, as attentive and considerate as the aforementioned council members were, it really is upsetting that the area's local representative, CM Peter Koo, left the hearing before the opposition had a chance to be heard. Given the fact, that Koo has been shucking and ducking on setting up a meeting with the Coalition, it certainly was inconsiderate of him give a group that represents so many so many Flushing residents and business owners-with a petition of 15,000 signatures-the brush off. The absence of adjacent council member Julissa Ferreras (Weprin and Halloran flank Flushing and were present) was also a disappointment-her voice was truly missed.

There was one issue that we will be pursuing (are you taking notes Lombino?) as the end game closes in. It was a point that was raised by Brian Ketcham about the manner in which the EDC consultants purposefully underestimate the car and truck trips, They do so by arguing that car ownership is greatly lower than the standard estimates have already determined-70% rather than over 90%. Once they have done so-and they do this for Willets Point as well-they go on to say that the residents and shoppers not in their cars will be using the mass transit infrastructure-both buses and the 7 Line.

It is Brian's strong opinion-and we will be mining the data on this-that there is not enough current capacity to handle all of this putative off-loading onto mass transit alternatives-particularly since the MTA is planning on further cuts to existing service that is already over capacity. If our assumptions are true, it will mean that Flushing will not only end up gridlocked, it will also be train and bus locked-a great legacy for the mayor's greening of NYC.

All of which leaves the opposition with a great deal to do in a short period of time. We have been given the opportunity to point out the egregious flaws in the EDC proposal-and hats off to Halloran for his public skepticism of anything the agency puts forward-and it is now up to the council to act as the honest broker to address the concerns of the businesses and residents. Our advice-as unself-serving as always-is that the Flushing Commons project should be significantly downscaled so that the community isn't swamped by this massive case of over development.