Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Flushing Small Busness Down the Drain

Tomorrow the city council will hold its first hearing on the Flushing Commons development-a controversial project that is highlighted in the NY Times: "The parking lot fills nearly five acres of land in Flushing, Queens, an expanse of Muni-Meters and concrete for 1,100 cars in the heart of one of New York’s busiest commercial strips. To the city, the lot is one part piggy bank, one part branding opportunity. Selling it could yield much-needed money at a time of belt-tightening and give the Bloomberg administration a chance to replicate its development model deep into the boroughs outside Manhattan — a mix of homes, offices and retail space that is ambitious in appearance and size."

Nothing could possibly symbolize what's wrong with the Bloomberg development model-on so many different levels-than this misguided effort. For the past eight years the Bloombergistas have been, in the middle of advocating for congestion pricing and the reduction of carbon emissions, promoting the building of millions of sq. ft. of auto-dependent malls-more cars, and more direct competition with the city's neighborhood stores.

And this area in Queens is already home to a number of such malls-from College Point's 500,000 sq. ft. of box stores on 20th Avenue, to the 800,000 sq. ft Muss development called Sky View Parc-home to BJ's and a number of other large national chains (a development that is literally three blocks fro the site of the proposed Flushing Commons. In addition, the old Caldor's site on Roosevelt and Main is being remodeled with an additional 165,000 sq. ft. of retail space

If there's one area that doesn't need any more national chain stores it is the area in the heart of overly congested downtown Flushing. But it gets worse. You see, the Bloomberg model bases its development methodology that presumes that the building of these malls is needed in order to stem the tide of shoppers-and shopping dollars-out to the suburbs. And EDC once again makes this argument-and exposes its ignorance-in the Flushing Commons EIS.

In the case of Flushing-and EDC might have uncovered this if it had bothered to do a real economic impact study due diligence-it is the exact opposite. You see, Flushing is a Mecca for Asians from all over the tri-state area. It draws in shoppers from all over the region-bringing with them the shopping dollars that are vital to the economic health of, not only Flushing, but the city as a whole.

The Times, citing Flushing Coalition's Ikwan Rim's 15,000 signature petition, makes note of this phenomenon: "After Mr. Bloomberg named the project’s developers in 2005 — besides Mr. Lee, the other developer is the Rockefeller Group Development Corporation — Mr. Rim, who is co-president of the Union Street Small Business Association, began collecting signatures for a petition opposing Flushing Commons. He eventually gathered 15,000 names. He read the addresses accompanying some of them — Manhasset, Long Island; New Milford, Conn.; Montgomery, N.J.; Scarsdale, N.Y. — and noted that they are all places where Koreans live"

"People might leave Flushing, but they keep coming back,” Mr. Rim said." A totally sui generis phenomenon that EDC totally misses-underscoring just how misguided the city's economic development officials really are.

So, in the middle of this vibrant, diverse, and successful economic hub, the city wants to inject a generic mall that will add nothing except headaches to Flushing. The mall will not only compete directly with local shops that draw people into the city to shop, it will also deprive the local businesses of the parking that is the lifeblood of the shops-ceding control of the municipal parking lot to a developer whose tenants will be direct competitors of the local stores.

Over 70% of the customers come by car to Flushing to shop. That’s quite logical since the stores and other businesses are attracting people from all over into the neighborhood. Deprive the stores of their parking, however, and you take away the very oxygen that they need to breathe. And allow a developer to charge, not municipal rates, but market rates for the parking after the project is built, and it will lead to the same result-the destruction of these immigrant businesses.

That is why former council member John Liu had negotiated a supposedly binding agreement with the city that would have capped the parking rates in perpetuity-an agreement that, apparently, wasn't worth the paper it was printed on, since it was abrogated right after Liu left to become comptroller:

"But business owners are skeptical that prices will be as low as those at the municipal lot, where one-hour parking costs $1. (About one-third of the spaces in the municipal lot allow 12-hour parking for $4 and are largely used by commuters who do not usually patronize Flushing businesses, Mr. Brent noted.)

A ceiling for parking prices will be established for the first three years after the project’s completion, Mr. Brent said. The city’s comptroller, John C. Liu, who represented the area on the Council for eight years, said that he had entered into an agreement with the city five years ago that would have permanently capped parking rates, but that months later, the deal fell apart.

“There’s clearly a huge credibility gap,” Mr. Liu said.

But the Times misses this crucial variable-the vital nature of Flushing's drawing-in of customers from outside of the city. Instead it focuses on the inter-ethnic rivalries between Koreans and Chines. This is a mistake because, as Union Street merchant leader Ikwan Rim points out, all Flushing merchants will be forced to pay a heavy price: “Once the spots at the municipal parking lot are gone, every business will suffer,” he said."

And those spots will be gone as soon as demolition is started but, not to worry, the city has a plan to shuttle people in from the outskirts of Flushing-or force customers to park blocks away from retail stores whose customers will be forced to walk for 10-15 minutes in order to get to their destination-a situation that the newly elected council member Peter Koo is unfazed about: "For now, Mr. Koo and city officials are finalizing the details of a $2 million assistance package for local business owners during construction and are ironing out parking alternatives. One of them includes building a second level on a smaller municipal lot nearby that would add about 190 spots to its existing 88. Another would open a private lot on College Point Boulevard, about a half-mile away. “People might have to walk 10 to 15 minutes to get to downtown Flushing,” Mr. Koo said."

Let's get this straight. 36 months for construction, $2 million, and 2100 businesses-you do the math. It amounts to $26.45 per month per business-a sum that adds up only if you have an underlying contempt for the hard working store owners of the soon to be destroyed Flushing small business community-destroyed, that is, unless the city council acts-as the honest broker that the Flushing community needs-to scale down this unsustainable development.