Monday, July 19, 2010

Retail Politics

We have commented on the productive nature of the exchange that opponents of the Flushing Commons had with council members last week at the Zoning and Franchises hearing. One exchange in particular got us to thinking. Land Use Chair Comrie remarked that he didn't feel that the small businesses of Flushing-over 2100 strong-had anything to fear from the retail competition at the proposed mall. He also made the point that his daughter is always looking for stuff at some of the national chain stores-indicating that she might be better able to do so if these chain stores were allowed to tenant the Flushing Commons mall.

On the first point, we believe that Comrie is missing a couple of very strong arguments that the Flushing Coalition has made in its opposition to the retail component of the development. We have emphasized the competion issue precisely because the EDC-generated, "analysis" of the socio-economic impacts is so thoroughly dishonest. Although Chair Comrie may feel that there is nothing to fear from the competition, apparently EDC does-because it goes to such great lengths (or rather its tied at the hip consultants do) to minimize this very issue by arguing in the socio economic impact section of the EIS that, since there will be mostly , "national chain destination retailers," at the mall, local retailers have little to complain, or worry, about.

The study done by Hunter College, however, thoroughly rebuts the EIS assertion-which is fairly easy to do since there is actually no supporting documentation that bolsters the claim. What the Hunter report demonstrates, is that there will be 450 local businesses in direct competition with mall retailers. Now you can, as Comrie does, feel that this isn't-or shouldn't be-of any great concern-and people can certainly agree to disagree about this point. But what should concern the chair of the land use committee is the manner in which the city's lead economic development agency has so little regard for the truth-or, perhaps, little regard for any serious analysis of economic impact.

In our view, and the view is underscored by the fact that EDC makes a counter argument on what retailers will tenant the mall in its traffic chapter, in essence, speaking out of both sides of its mouth-it is time for the city council to take a stand against  slipshod-and at times fraudulent environmental review work. If the EIS can clearly be shown to be bereft of any sustainable evidence to its claims-and what could be clearer than two contradictory assertions about retail competition?-than the application should be labeled as deficient, and sent back to its prevaricators-no matter how any individual council member feels about the competition issue.

But, leaving this issue of fraud aside, let's get to the Comrie point about retail choices for his young daughter-and having had a teenage girl in the house, we understand his concern. Perhaps this story from last week's WSJ can put the issue into some perspective: "In the business district of Flushing, one of the densest areas in New York City, Sky View Center, an 800,000-square-foot shopping mall, has started to open its doors...Even though the new mall will increase congestion in an area already packed with pedestrians and cars, there are residents are looking forward to having more national retailers locally. The only regional mall in Queens currently is Queens Center in Elmhurst. "People are happy to have them because we [often] have to go to Long Island, Manhattan or New Jersey to buy something," said Fred Fu, president of Flushing Development Center, a nonprofit that hosts cultural events in Flushing."

The new mall is about three or four blocks from the proposed Flushing Commons-and, let's not forget that Sky View Parc will have hundreds of free parking spaces for its customers. Choices galore-and that doesn't include the newly renovated Caldors site, or the 500,000 sq. ft. of national chain retailers at 20th Avenue-plenty of choices for young Ms. Comrie. Why the compelling need to locate an additional 250,00 sq. ft. of space right in the middle of downtown Flushing-"an area already packed with pedestrians and cars..."

And we don't know Mr. Fu, but his comments about how the big new mall will help the mom and pop stores is about as counter intuitive an observation as you will ever hear: "Though it is too early to tell whether the area's many small, mostly Asian, businesses will be affected, Mr. Fu suggests that the new mall will benefit existing business owners. "The new stores will generate more customers for the small businesses. People from Long Island City, Jamaica, and Bayside will come here to buy," he says."

This is, of course, nonsense. No mall with its own parking capability has ever benefited smaller businesses in the area surrounding it. Mall customers are captives of their destination. But let's not lose sight of the Comrie issue. There are plenty of retail choices for those looking to buy at national chain stores without locating an additional cluster in the heart of  Flushing's unique business district. In the end, it is a question of the city council exercising its judgment about the choices being made, and the spurious reports being issued, by the agency that is supposed to be concerned for of NYC's businesses-not just the large retail mall developers.

So, in our view, why jeopardize the existing small businesses of Flushing when there are ample outlets for those wishing to shop at a city mall? Indeed, why do so when we know that the area in question is, "already packed with pedestrians and cars?" Flushing needs a mall in its downtown about as much as a bull needs...Well, you all get the drift, don't you?