Getting off the No. 7 train at its terminus in Flushing, Queens can be like stepping into another world. Founded in 1645, Flushing was once one of the oldest Dutch settlements in the city. It became home to affluent whites and a large African-American population at the turn of the last century before its more recent transformation into a Chinatown. It is also the largest business district in Queens, and the fourth largest in the city.
The Bloomberg administration is hoping to leverage the area’s consumer status with the creation of Flushing Commons, a 1.1 million-square-foot mixed-use complex on the site of a municipal parking garage. But local businesses and community groups fear the project will overwhelm them, driving out mom-and-pop shops that have made Flushing a thriving place for immigrant start-up businesses, turning it into another Bloombergian landscape of glass boxes choked off by traffic.
The plan, developed by local outfit TDC and the Rockefeller Group, won an RFP in 2005 and was designed by Perkins Eastman. It includes 600 units of housing, 420,000 square feet of retail and office space, a 62,000-square-foot Y, 36,000 square feet of community space, and 1,600 parking spaces. It’s aiming for LEED Silver status.
One of its biggest sticking points has been parking, namely that it lacks enough. In 2005, then–City Council representative John Liu indicated to then–Deputy Mayor for Development Dan Doctoroff that he would not support any project with fewer than 2,000 parking spaces, with a permanent cap on rates. Since many Flushing visitors come by car, particularly because public transit is limited, the current lot with its 1,101 spaces is actually seen as an asset.
The council has final say on all land-use projects, so Flushing Commons was considered dead until this January, when Liu became comptroller and Peter Kuo, a booster for the project, took his place on the City Council. Three weeks after Kuo’s swearing in, the Planning Commission certified the project on January 25.
So far, the local community board and Borough President Helen Marshall have supported the project, albeit with 17 modifications that range from more parking to inclusion of a bookstore, basically returning it to the phase agreed upon by Liu and Doctoroff five years ago. “At least with these changes, it’ll go from devastating to horrific,” said Paul Graziano, a planner and community activist.
Kuo’s chief of staff, James McClelland, said many of these issues should have gone into the RFP but it’s too late to include them now. “We’d like to see all of them, but there’s a bunch the city and the developer have taken off the table,” he said. “They have an agreement, and there’s not much we can do about it.” Still, Kuo has promised to press the city on traffic mitigation measures, parking, workforce training, and small-business subsidies.
For Jim Gerson, a founding member of the Flushing BID whose family has owned a building there for three generations, this is a slap in the face. “None of us are against development,” Gerson said. “A parking lot, other than an economic engine, is not an attractive part of Flushing. But it’s better to build something that supports the community than something that divides and potentially even destroys it.”
Having passed the Planning Commission on June 23, the project will come to a council vote by the end of August and likely pass given Kuo’s support. Gerson and Graziano anticipate a long fight ahead, including legal challenges.