It has always been understood that if a City Council member was either for or against a major development or land use project that required legislative approval, the full City Council would vote to support their fellow council member’s wishes.
Last week, the City Council approved the Special Flushing Waterfront District, which paves the way for a massive project on the Flushing waterfront spearheaded by three developers who own land on Flushing Creek between Roosevelt Avenue and College Point Boulevard.
The project had the support of Councilman Peter Koo, but faced a considerable amount of local opposition, which argued the project would hasten gentrification and make Flushing unaffordable for many longtime residents, as well as put on strain on the neighborhood’s infrastructure, without providing any tangible benefits.
Even Acting Borough President Sharon Lee came out against the project when her office held hearings on the proposal over the summer.
In the past, Koo’s support would have been all that was necessary for the proposal to get the only approval that really matters – the approval of the City Council.
But as the Special Flushing Waterfront District moved to the City Council, it’s foregone approval came into question.
A group of 12 council members led by Councilman Francisco Moya, whose district sits on the other side of Flushing Creek, drafted a letter detailing their issues with the plan. It was significant, because Moya chairs the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, which gets a vote on all land use projects.
They cited the project’s lack of affordable housing and guarantee of union jobs in the residential buildings and hotels that would be built. Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer was the only other council member from Queens to sign the letter.
It called to mind the Industry City rezoning in Sunset Park, albeit in reverse. In September, that large-scale rezoning came before the City Council, with Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who represents the district, coming out against it.
But with coronavirus raging and the sting of losing out on Amazon HQ2 still fresh on people’s minds, some council members questioned the idea of killing a proposal that had the potential to create tens of thousands of jobs, even if it did mean fundamentally changing the makeup of Sunset Park.
Councilmen Ritchie Torres of the Bronx and Donovan Richards (now Queens borough president) wrote an op-ed arguing the City Council should approve the rezoning despite the opposition of Menchaca.
“‘Member deference’ has its place, to be sure,” they wrote. “But it becomes dangerous when it morphs into veto power over the growth of the city’s economy.”
In the end, the developers behind the Industry City rezoning pulled their application rather than risk a “no” vote in the City Council. Menchaca will be term-limited out of office next year – he has already announced he is running for mayor – so expect the Industry City rezoning to resurface once there is a new person representing the district that might be more favorable to the project.
It would not be unprecedented if the City Council ignored member deference. In 2009, the City Council approved a mixed-use development in DUMBO, despite the objections of then-councilman David Yassky.
But it appears that influence of member deference may be waning. In the end, the Special Flushing Waterfront District passed when an agreement with labor unions and a promise to include more affordable housing was reached, but five council members still voted against it.
They included Van Bramer and Costa Constantinides from Queens, as well as Menchaca, which is a bit ironic considering he tacitly enjoyed the privilege of member deference when it came to Industry City.
However, it appears that more council members are deciding that major land use projects can affect their own constituents even if they are outside their district. And that trend could grow if more progressive candidates are elected to office.
Take for instance Constantinides’ seat, which upstart Tiffany Caban seems poised to step into once he leaves office. (We hear that Constantinides is on a short list of candidates for deputy borough president in the new Richards’ administration, so he could be leaving office sooner rather than later, necessitating a special election to fill his seat.)
In launching her campaign, Caban, who lost by only 60 votes to Melinda Katz in last year’s race for district attorney, said she would consistently vote on the side of working-class people, which means she could completely disregard the wishes of a local council member if she feels it doesn’t serve the residents of a neighborhood.
If the City Council continues to sway more progressive, the old way of doing politics could be just that – the old way. And if that’s the case, the long-standing tradition of member deference could be a thing of the past.