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Innovation QNS met with community backlash

The development team of Innovation QNS — a project that seeks to rezone five city blocks to build a mixed use residential and commercial district in Astoria — held a town hall meeting at the Museum of the Moving Image last week to discuss community outreach efforts.

Representatives from Kaufman Astoria Studios, BedRock Real Estate Partners, Urban Upbound, and Silverstein Properties gave a presentation and took questions from the hundreds of guests who attended the meeting.

The presentation was met with mixed reactions from union construction workers seeking employment and protestors who were holding signs and chanting “Our neighborhood, not your playground.”

The town hall meeting was announced shortly after Councilwoman Julie Won demanded more transparency and community outreach in a letter to the Innovation QNS team.

“This project has been in the works since 2020 and claims to have done extensive outreach in the community. Community Board 1, local residents, and housing organizations have all expressed concern about a lack of adequate community outreach especially in Spanish and Bangla,” Won wrote in the letter.

“Thus far, the amount of community engagement is insufficient for a project of this scale that will deeply impact not only those in the immediate vicinity, but also will have lasting impacts on the neighborhood as a whole.”

Despite numerous claims from elected officials and concerned residents of a lack of community engagement, the developers maintain the notion that they have and will continue to perform adequate outreach.

“We’ve tried to put this town hall together, we’ve done street canvassing at subway stations throughout the Community Board district and we went door-to-door canvassing in the neighborhood proximate to the sites,” Tracy Capune, vice president at Kaufman Astoria Studios, said.

“We’ve presented a variety of Zoom presentations to over 80 community-based organizations, we’ve held focus groups, we’ve done an online survey that got about 1,200 responses and we’re spreading the word in multiple languages across multiple channels,” she continued. “We are happy to continue to do this outreach, and we look forward to speaking with our local Council Member on how we can address the concerns to the outreach.”

A rally outside the town hall, organized by CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, Astoria Not For Sale, Woodside on the Move , Astoria Tenants Union, Justice For All Coalition and Western Queens Community Land Trust , pointed out the flaws in Innovation QNS’ outreach approaches, as well as other reasons why they believe the project would be a disservice to the community.

Evie Hantzopoulos, an Astoria resident, member of Community Board 1 and executive director of the Queens Botanical Garden, referred to their community engagement efforts as “a joke,” citing the fact that the town hall meeting was held during the Orthodox Holy Week, Ramadan, and spring break — a time while many people are unavailable.

“I went to one of those places in the development, talked to the people working there, and they had no idea that their building, where their restaurant is, is part of this proposal and is going to be razed,” Hantzopoulos said.

She added that these types of rezonings are a “ripple effect,” and will further displace local tenants and small businesses in the surrounding area.

“Sometimes the qualifying rent is well above what the median income is for the people who live in that community. The people who desperately need this housing will not be able to qualify, let alone apply — and it’s a lottery system,” she said. “If you are going to construct this huge development, which is going to be over 75 percent unaffordable to the community, you have to know what you’re going to be charging for those. You’re not being transparent about that.”

Tracey Appelbaum, co-founder of BedRock Real Estate Partners, responded by saying that the development team understands the housing crisis present in New York City, and that they would provide 700 permanently affordable housing units. Twenty-five percent of the 2,800+ units would be affordable for those making $50,000 annually, and 60 percent of units would be within the price range of area median income.

The proposed $2 billion development would build 12 towers between Northern Boulevard and 37th Street, ranging from nine to 27 stories tall.

The towers would house over 2,800 apartments, offering more than 100 dedicated homes for seniors, as well as 5,400 on-site jobs and two acres of permanently publicly accessible open space.

NYS Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani, who rallied alongside the community groups, said that Astoria is in the midst of a massive displacement crisis.

He argued that developments like Innovation QNS actively contribute to the problem.

“If you have more than 2,000 market rate apartments coming here without a guarantee or commitment as to what those prices will be, we will simply see more and more landlords looking at those projected units as the new going rate for living in Astoria,” Mamdani said.

“I will never stand in opposition to affordable housing. What I will stand in opposition to are projects that masquerade as such,” he said. “That is where the genesis of my critique and opposition to this project comes from.”

Doreen Mohammed, a resident and CB1 member said: “As a working class, first generation Bangladeshi-American who grew up in Queens, I have seen firsthand how luxury developments like Innovation QNS are harmful for working class New Yorkers. They spike up the rents and cost of living in the immediate and surrounding areas. They yield violent displacement of people.”

“We need deeply, truly affordable, and accessible housing for all working class and poor New Yorkers,” Mohammed said.. “Innovation QNS will displace our vulnerable immigrant, working class, communities of color. This is why we must oppose this rezoning and fight to end this project.”

Botanical Garden towers scrapped after backlash

After many weeks of speaking for the trees, the local Loraxes and community activists at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden have successfully halted the development of two high-rise towers that would have severely impacted plant life in the park.
Proposed for 960 Franklin Avenue, the two 34-story towers would have blocked sunlight from reaching vast portions of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
Additionally, the towers would cast a shadow over many other areas throughout Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, including nearby Jackie Robinson Playground, M.S. 375, and the campus of Medgar Evers College.
This past week, opponents of the project finally declared victory in the “Fight for Sunlight.”
First, Borough President Eric Adams stated his opposition to the plan. Although the borough president only plays an advisory role in the land-use process, Adams disapproval was a strong sign of waning support.
An official statement from Adams office explained that while new development on underutilized land is welcome when it offers affordable housing or other positive benefits, the towers at 960 Franklin were without precedent.
But the towers were dealt a much bigger blow when the City Planning Commission voted against the project.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage the project, real estate developer The Continuum Company proposed a revised plan for the tower that was 17 stories tall. The City Planning Commission rejected this proposal as well.
“The proposal is not only inappropriate for this location,” said Marisa Lago, chair of the City Planning Commission, “but also casts extensive shadows over the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens’ greenhouses and conservatories, which are unique, sunlight sensitive receptors.”

Big win for Gowanus rezoning

Recent developments reveal an increasing support for the Gowanus rezoning.
Last week, Borough President and Democratic nominee for mayor Eric Adams formally announced his support for the ambitious zoning change.
Although borough presidents only have an advisory role in the land use process, Adams support for the neighborhood-wide rezone is a telling sign that the Democratic nominee would continue to advocate for similar developments if he is elected mayor.
“New York City is always changing, but every once in a while we need a sea change, and that’s what I believe we are embracing now,” Adams said during a press conference.
Adams made it clear that his support was contingent upon the rezoning’s commitment to funding public housing. Multiple NYCHA developments, including the Wyckoff Houses, are included within the area planned for rezoning, but the borough president is hopeful that the money put towards the rezoning will also assist low-income residents.
“This is about investing in public housing,” Adams explained. “Buildings cannot go up around NYCHA developments while residents see their futures go down.”
The Gowanus Rezoning has previously been criticized for opening the neighborhood to increased displacement and gentrification.
However, a new Racial Equity Report on Housing and Opportunity created by the City Council in collaboration with the Fifth Avenue Committee and Columbia University Urban History Professor Lance Freeman found that the zoning change would in fact make the neighborhood more diverse.
The report took neighborhood demographics and income into account, and determined that 20 to 25 percent of the new apartments coming to the neighborhood through the rezoning are projected to be filled by Black residents, while 25 to 37 percent are projected to be filled by Hispanic residents.
Currently, the area slated for rezoning is more than 60 percent white.
“In 2021, New York City remains one of the most highly segregated and unequal cities in the United States,” read the report. “Persistent disparities in access to economic opportunity, quality education, healthcare, housing, and open space have been revealed and exacerbated by a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities.
“Until recently, broad goals of citywide economic growth and housing production without specific regard to racial or socio-economic equity have long dominated the policymaking process,” it continued. “This model of pursuing ‘color-blind’ growth within a vision of New York as a global capital of finance, culture, and tourism continues to influence the City’s overall policy direction and has yet to be fully reckoned with.”
The Gowanus Rezoning was approved on June 24 by community boards 6 and 2 after many months of pushback and legal challenges.
The proposal was originally conceived during the administration of former mayor Michael Bloomberg, but found new life under Mayor Bill de Blasio. It will see 80 square blocks of the neighborhood rezoned to make way for new developments, including the controversial plan to build a complex on the highly polluted Public Place site along the Gowanus Canal.
The rezoning will bring approximately 8,500 new housing units to the neighborhood, including 3,000 units that would be permanently affordable.
Community groups, including the grassroots organization Voice of Gowanus, criticized both the legal process to approve the rezoning and the environmental risks that could come along with new development.
The group successfully secured a temporary restraining order that prevented the rezoning from entering the land-use review process, yet the ruling was soon reversed by New York Supreme Court Justice Katherine Levine.
At the time of the rezoning’s approval, many local politicians and community members were still wary of the negative impact the rezoning would bring. Councilman Brad Lander and members of Community Board 6 both expressed their dismay that additional NYCHA funding was not included in the rezoning proposal, and called for the city to conduct a larger study of the rezoning’s potential impact on racial equity.
With the release of the new report last week, these political figures have begun to change their tune.
“As our public statements, communications to the city, and final vote to conditionally approve the Gowanus rezoning made clear, we supported a racial impact study and are glad to see one has been done,” said Mike Racioppo, district manager of Community Board 6. “More important than the study being done are the results of the study, which show Gowanus could become more diverse after the rezoning.”
In addition to the Racial Equity Report, local activists continue to demand that the city support and fund a Gowanus Zoning Commitment Task Force to maintain a steady stream of communication with members of the community.
“The task force will monitor compliance with public and private commitments, adherence to zoning requirements, and implementation of the rezoning,” board leaderhips wrote in a joint statement.

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