Community Leaders Oppose The Mayor’s “City of Yes” Proposal, Neighborhoods Could Be Forever Marred, The Voice of New Yorkers Must Not Be Ignored

By Michael Perlman

Queens residents among New Yorkers at large are increasingly concerned and in opposition of the controversial City of Yes proposal, conceived by Mayor Eric Adams and the City Planning Commission. This could significantly alter the residential and commercial environments of New York City’s neighborhoods by amending and stripping numerous zoning regulations, and therefore nullify the distinctive and contextual characteristics that residents, Community Boards, elected officials, shop owners, and urban planners have advocated for throughout several decades. It could pose disastrous consequences for owners of one and two-family homes and small businesses, and community leaders are becoming vocal. 

In late April, the Queens Civic Congress launched a petition directed towards Mayor Adams, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, and City Council: Based on 2,330 signatures to date, 60 percent of signers encompass zip codes 11375, 11357, and 11361. 

In response to the City of Yes proposal, which consists of thousands of pages, President Claudia Valentino of the Forest Hills Community and Civic Association said, “A most important task of civic leaders is to make homeowners and shop owners aware, and ask them to educate themselves about the plan’s components, so they can express their own viewpoints. Now that they have, their feedback is a resounding ‘No’ to the City of Yes.” 

On May 6, Valentino coordinated the Emergency Town Hall Meeting at Our Lady of Mercy Parish Hall in Forest Hills, which featured an informative session attended by over 200 residents. An overview of the City of Yes was presented by Valentino and urban planner Paul Graziano.

Additionally, nearly 600 residents signed a letter to Councilmember Lynn Schulman, encouraging her to vote “No” on the economic aspects of City of Yes. Furthermore, Valentino attended zoom meetings with Queenswide residents and attended a May 31 rally in City Hall Park with over 200 passionate civic leaders, largely from Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Queens. On June 4, the Land Use Committee of Community Board 6 scheduled a public hearing on the housing component of the City of Yes, which was followed by a committee vote. 

Valentino is one of numerous residents and civic leaders who feel that the City of Yes would cause destructive overdevelopment within neighborhoods of one and two-family homes and small and historic commercial corridors, such as Metropolitan Avenue and Austin Street. She explained, “While our area and surrounding neighborhoods would be harmed, it is important to realize that the City of Yes plan applies to all neighborhoods, especially those in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Specifically, the plan calls for additional floors to small buildings, such as those on Metropolitan Avenue. Most businesses on Metropolitan rent the retail space they occupy, despite belief to the contrary, and landlords could be induced to sell buildings to real estate speculators, and the resulting add-ons to buildings would displace both retail and residential tenants. It would also be disruptive to the buildings they abut, not to mention infrastructure such as sewer, water, and utilities.” 

These small commercial strips, which offer historic details, are an anchor of such neighborhoods, and recently symbolized stories of community, diligence, and originality to stay afloat during the pandemic’s economic downturns. “There is no excuse for the disruption that the City of Yes would bring to these small commercial streets and their mom-and-pop, single owner businesses, and not to mention rent increases. The entire plan is a hidden attempt at destructive gentrification,” said Valentino. 

Regarding one and two-family homes, the proposal would permit Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in homes as rental units. These include apartments in basements (many have been deemed illegal and unsafe), attics, and garages, as well as additional rental structures in

backyards to stand 10 feet from the back door of a main home, and five feet from property lines. Valentino explained, “This takes a one-family or two-family home to three, four, five-family residences. Again, real estate speculation, with people purchasing homes with the express purpose of turning them over completely to rentals, or to Airbnbs, which occurred in Sedona, Arizona with these plans, is in the cards for us.” 

Such plans originated from urban planners in other cities, such as those in California and Oregon. One and two-family homes typically sit on larger lots out west. Valentino pinpointed how zoning would be greatly compromised. “Even on Long Island, where ADUs are appearing, lot sizes are required to be significantly larger than what New York City has. Where I live, lots are typically 25 feet by 100 feet, and houses are only 16 feet wide, but yet the City of Yes plan seeks to apply to all lots and all houses across the boroughs.” 

Near Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills are 16-foot-wide frame houses, symbolic of those in the credits to “All in the Family.” They were commonly erected in the 1920s as “worker” houses for Forest Hills Gardens. “Our homes are set close to sidewalks with a small front garden for flood control, and deep backyards. The rationale was that lower income residents did not have the option of summering in the Hamptons, and would need outdoor space for family enjoyment and relief from the heat. Houses in Forest Hills Gardens, by contrast, are set way back on the property, to have a dramatic approach to the front door, but typically have a very small backyard. With this understanding, proposed ADUs would destroy the very intention of our yards, which enable recreation, gardening, and privacy.” 

Regarding ‘transit zones’ under the City of Yes, three and four-story apartment buildings can be erected among the one and two-family homes, increasing density and noise, while decreasing privacy. “One and two-family neighborhoods are places that people move to by quite explicit choice. Apartment buildings and density are precisely what we have sacrificed to move away from,” she said.

One component of the City of Yes that may be greener and preservation-friendly is adaptively reusing former office buildings as residences. Since the pandemic, people are not reoccupying office buildings in significant numbers. Valentino feels it is time to renovate commercial space 

for residential use, in addition to the excess of empty warehoused apartments. “These spaces are the equivalent of hiding money under one’s mattress, but for what? When real estate prices rebound? It’s time to address the terrible affordable housing problem and the problem of decently housing our homeless.” 

A serious misrepresentation about zoning is being circulated by the powers who desire the City of Yes to be approved, claiming that one group wants to keep others out. “We’re not Oregon, for example, where between 75% and 85% of the population of one-family neighborhoods is white, and where they are using ‘Yes’ type rezoning plans to integrate the state. This is New York City, 

and Queens is the poster-children for diversity,” said Valentino, who finds this accusation divisive. She hopes that the city will realize that residents helped downzone their neighborhoods, comparable to how the Forest Hills Community and Civic Association was successful two decades ago, to prevent density and real estate speculation, and commercial activity out of residential areas, and to safeguard fragile infrastructure, to prevent flooding and keep at bay the risk of fire that comes with overpopulation and business activity among homes. 

Valentino also hopes that officials will walk in the footsteps of residents to realize how their homes are close together with only a common driveway. “There is no room for additional development! We simply matched our zoning to what exists, and there has been no attempt of any kind to prevent our fellow New Yorkers, who come from every corner of the globe, from moving here. Ring doorbells and you will see how diverse we are. We are New Yorkers who must always stick together, and we do not need cast-off plans from other municipalities that in no way compare with us.” 

Countless residents, including Valentino are devoted towards neighborly, historic, and idyllic low-rise sections, such as Metropolitan Avenue shops and the commercial strip of 69th Avenue.

“They are our anchor and allow us to have a small-scale, walkable community, doing business with people we have relationships with. I also love the quiet of my backyard. We all know when to enjoy a chat and how to offer privacy and peace to our neighbors, even as we hear the sounds of birthday celebrations, gardening, and outdoor recreation. Most of all, our community is what fancy people call artisanal.” Walking around, she can pinpoint the loving care that each owner dedicates to their homes, including their flower and vegetable gardens. 

Leslie Brown, President of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, has many small business owners who are members, spanning Austin Street and nearby. “The City of Yes proposal is complex, and there needs to impact studies on how this will affect Forest Hills. Quite a few business owners and residents I have asked do not seem to be aware of all the implications,” she said. 

She expressed concerns about the proposed end to parking mandates for new housing. “We struggle with not enough parking, so proposals to take away parking and have more residential buildings without required mandates, will have an impact that can cause serious issues.” 

Brown is also concerned as to how the City of Yes would permit ADUs. “This could give homeowners extra cash or provide more space for multi-generational families, but absolutely alter our community’s character.” 

Twenty-year Forest Hills resident Chad Callahan proudly serves the community as president of the Forest Hills Van-Court Association, and takes into consideration all concerns from homeowners. The Forest Hills Van-Court section offers approximately 300 homes that are safeguarded by Architectural Covenants to preserve the beauty, character, and distinction of properties erected over a century ago. “We work every day to ensure that our area is preserved for the enjoyment of future generations,” he said.

Callahan is proud of how Queens has been called the “borough of families.” He explained, “Our children go to school here, many of us operate our businesses here, and this area is known for its diversity in living options, such as a luxury high rise apartment, a modest apartment with access to public transportation, a multi-family townhouse, or a single-family residence.” However, that 

diversity is now threatened. “The City of Yes would end single-family neighborhoods like Forest Hills Van-Court. Every block in the low-density areas of Forest Hills could then have multi-family houses on each short-end of the street,” he continued. 

If it passes, irreversible damage will be in the forecast, since an assemblage of private homes is the community’s pride. “In Van Court, we certainly go above and beyond to ensure that materials, architecture, and colors are adhered to, in order to preserve the intent of which the community was originally built.” He also shared concerns over the proposed ADUs. “Garages could then be converted into living quarters, illegal basement apartments can be legalized, and possibly even the establishment of new small structures on lawns or in backyards. Imagine how NYC spent decades improving living conditions, but now wants to go back 100 years to allow tiny units to be created. These concepts are beneath the living standard that any person should have to endure, and should not be allowed,” he continued. 

Zoning has been a component of New York City for over a century. Callahan explained, “It operates well to provide systems and laws for developers to operate within, and zoning laws are here to also protect us. To allow multi-family units in areas zoned for single-family homes is to betray residents who advocated for years to maintain our status as a single-family community.” 

Callahan is also a proponent of repurposing older office buildings into residences and installing eco-friendly greening. “There are several new office developments that would jump at the opportunity to convert to residential. It does not make sense to demolish a 100-year-old historic home to build an apartment building in its place.” 

He among residents embrace Forest Hills’ distinctive character, which includes the covenant-protected Forest Hills Gardens and Forest Hills Van-Court. “Block after block, you find

well maintained, historic single-family homes, shaded by trees and enhanced by flowers and shrubbery. It is quiet, parking is available, and you can often find kids playing on their front lawns. However, if multi-family housing is incorporated, it is more than likely that the number of such single-family homes would decrease, parking would become a problem, and families that invest to raise their children here may consider leaving in search of less crowded places.” 

The Association is a fine example of being civic-minded, with their attendance at Community Board 6’s public hearing, in addition to the City Council hearing. They also marked the June 4 CB 6 Land Use meeting and hearing on their agenda. At the Association’s recent meeting, the 

City of Yes was a hot topic. “So far, none of our residents are supporters, and they are scared of what may result. Remember, living here is a choice, so eliminating our designation as a single-family community goes against their wishes.” 

Callahan requests Mayor Adams and his team to directly engage with communities. “We have an active board and a passionate community of homeowners, who welcome the opportunity to provide constructive ideas to help the city tackle challenges. Our hope is that our voices are heard, and this proposal does not go forward in its current form. We will request to meet with our elected officials.” 

Stay tuned for an upcoming column featuring perspectives of residents, businesses, a zoning expert, and the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance.

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