Flushing Commons Pros, Cons Aired At Land Use Hearings
At the borough president’s land use public hearing, held April 20 in Room 213 of Queens Borough Hall, several important building decisions produced at Community Board 7’s April meeting two weeks earlier, all of them sure to have a tremendous impact on the Downtown Flushing area if ultimately accepted, got a further evaluation. Six of them had to do with the Flushing Commons project and had received Board 7 approval by wide margins.
Leading off the Flushing Commons part of the agenda at Borough Hall was a variance application paired with a ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Process) application by the city Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD). The latter had to do with Macedonia Plaza, which has to do with Macedonia AME Church, at 199 years of age, the oldest functional house of worship in Queens.
Flushing Commons is to be built where Flushing’s downtown parking lot has been standing since the 1950s, on a 5.5-acre block bounded by 138th Avenue, Congressman Rosenthal Avenue (37th Avenue), Union Street and 39th Avenue. Developer Michael Meyer stood at the rostrum and said that the issue was “familiar territory”, meaning that he had been promoting it for years (since 2005). As photographers took pictures of him and the colorful illustrations of the project, Meyer said that Perkins Eastman, which he called the largest architectural firm in the city, was designing it and Tishman Construction would build it. The result would be 1.2 million square feet of mixed-use buildings, 60 percent of them residential, including 600 condominiums. Some 275,000 square feet would be commercial space, which could include hotels, offices and retail facilities, though no “big box” entities like Wal-Mart or Ikea. The new Flushing YMCA would be 62,000 square feet in size. Meyer said that when it was done, Flushing Commons, larger in size than Rockefeller Center, would make Flushing a “destination place”.
As the illustration plainly showed, it wasn’t all buildings either. Meyer was proud to talk about the 1.5-acre terraced park that is to go in one corner of the project. He said that Flushing needs such a green oasis as this amidst the intense urban surroundings. He travels the world, he said, and has seen significant green spaces in places far less vital than Flushing, so the time for this one has come.
William Nelson, executive director of the YMCA, declared himself “extremely enthusiastic” about the new Y. He said that the old Y on Northern Boulevard was “built for another era”. This one should be made ready to meet what he sees as an increase of 10,000 young people in the vicinity in the next few years.
A parking lot for 1,100 vehicles will be eliminated to build the housing, commercial space and green space with parking for 1,600 vehicles. Meyer said that although the current municipal lot would be succeeded by a private one, it would be open to the public. The rates would be “right priced”, being neither too expensive to discourage customers nor so cheap they would attract commuters who leave their cars in a lot all day while they take public transportation to their places of work. The rates would be capped for five years, he said.
The Flushing Commons presentation was paired with the one for Macedonia Plaza, which is planned for the block across Union Street. Macedonia AME Church, on the verge of celebrating its 200th anniversary, is located at 37-22 Union St. and has a plan for building 140 affordable rental units near the church, which has stood at its present site since 1932. The current pastor, the Rev. Richard McEachern, described how there would be room for the residential building and space around the church, with room for parking and deliveries on 37th Avenue. Shampa Chanda of the Department of Housing’s planning and pipeline development division, called $940 per month affordable. She also said half the housing units would be reserved for Board 7 residents, while 7 percent would be available to the disabled and 5 percent for municipal workers. “We share your sentiment on affordable housing,” Borough President Helen Marshall told Chanda.
There was enthusiasm to spare for both plans, but there were objections as well. Yanghu Sunny Hahn, a local resident, found Flushing Commons to be “all wrong”—being architecturally massive for the neighborhood and having a green space that would really be only for the residents and not for the public, which would lose its public parking, too. Additionally, she voiced a complaint, repeated by others, that a movie theatre was promised for the project but finally was eliminated.
James Wu, Democratic District Leader for the 22nd Assembly District, part B, was among those who testified for the plan as it was presented. “I remember Flushing when the RKO was a movie theater, we had a B. Dalton bookstore, and a bus ride was 50 cents,” he stated. “We’re never going to see a bus ride for 50 cents but we can have a theater and a bookstore in Flushing again, which is what Flushing Commons promises. But before we get there, we have a parking problem, and we have a traffic problem.”
For Flushing Commons to be “a prettied up super-parking lot is not development, it is shortsighted and bad urban planning,” Wu added. “At 1,100 spaces, Municipal One can only expect to see longer traffic delays. The 1,600 spaces proposed for Flushing Commons is potentially too much for the limited road infrastructure. We should look at better distributing and expanding our parking lots. To address the needs of Union Street businesses and the loss of parking, even during the construction period, we should look at the parking lot behind Shinhan Bank and Macy’s, which is larger than Muni Lot 2, and like Muni Lot 2, which is gaining over 200 extra spaces, we could do the same for this space, which is located on Roosevelt Ave. between Main and Union [Streets]. Parking should be reallocated to Prince between Roosevelt and 39th Ave. Compared to Muni 1; it is the same distance to the train, buses, even closer to the LIRR, and a comparable distance for local businesses. Then there’s Caldor’s, which a few weeks ago finally opened as a parking garage with over 350 spaces and there is a traffic light already for cars to go in and out.”
Wu added that he visits Downtown Flushing almost every day. “On weekends, parking is a headache if you try to park at Muni 1, because everyone wants to park in the free giant parking lot, which creates a traffic nightmare. If the parking was better distributed, then people would not all try to drive into this one spot. I have never had trouble finding parking in Downtown Flushing unless I tried parking in Muni Lot 1.We need a bigger better vision for our community. Muni 1 should be more, than just a parking lot. Downtown Flushing can be more than just a parking lot.”
The answer to the traffic bottleneck, Wu continued, “is not to jam up our roads by pushing more cars into the same spot. Yes, we need more parking, but we obviously do not need it all in the same location. If your foot gets bigger, you don’t try putting it in the same old shoe. Keep in mind, beyond Flushing Commons, is Flushing Sky View Park, and then Willets Point. To use the foot metaphor, that’s going to be a ‘Giant Foot’ that’s outgrown Muni 1.
“Muni 1 is public land and we the community deserve as much for it as possible. Its future cannot be an over-glorified parking lot. We need a development, we need the best YMCA this city has ever seen, we need open community space, we need a bookstore, and a cinema. I’d like to see 50-cent buses too, but some dreams are too big. What is not a dream is the jobs – 2,600 union construction jobs, and almost 2,000 permanent jobs – Flushing Commons will bring. What is very real is the boost to our local economy – over $22 million annually, the improvements to our community and the affordable housing.
“New York City should reinvest a significant portion of the Muni 1 monies back into our community. For Muni 1, we can think beyond its property line. As a centerpiece in the largest transportation hub outside of Manhattan, Downtown Flushing can be so much more. We can look to the future, and for this public land, TDC Rockefeller can help us create thousands of parking spaces all over Downtown Flushing. We can work to make the old YMCA building into a school and even reclaim the RKO Keith’s as a community theater under CUNY, or perhaps a theater-Cineplex. New York City has done this for the other outer boroughs and I think Queens is due. We can also ask for help to expand the 7 [elevated and subway] train, maybe even help to make the Flushing LIRR station handicap accessible or even help with a ferry from College Point to Wall Street. There is a laundry list of needs for Downtown Flushing, and the funds from the Flushing Commons project can help. It is an excellent project that promises to improve the quality of life of our community.”
Wu concluded: “I ask you, Madame President, to see a better future, a better quality of life for all of us and please help us make Flushing Commons a reality.”