2016-04-20 / Front Page

Zoning Discussed At QCC

By Thomas Cogan

The topic of zoning issues that concern the borough was the basis of a Queens Chamber of Commerce seminar last week in the Bulova Corporate Conference Center auditorium.  It was led by John Young, director of the Queens Department of City Planning, and included a survey of recent citywide zoning changes that created the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program and put the city on course to establish zoning quality and affordability, or ZQA.  Another part of the address summarized neighborhood planning initiatives at Flushing West and in Long Island City.   All told, Queens grew 14 percent in two decades between 1990 and 2010 and since then has added another 4.5 percent.  Further growth is easy to foresee.  The seminar examined how it might best be made affordable.

Young was introduced as being the DCP’s director in Queens since 2000, which moved him to quip, “I didn’t think it would be a lifetime appointment.”  He began by referring to the borough’s population growth in the last quarter-century, showing a map that indicated the top three growth areas were in western Queens.  The leading growth factors were natural increase (more births than deaths) and, this being Queens, migration.  He said the borough has been built to its edges and yet must continue to grow.  Growth must be sustainable, resilient and equitable and neighborhoods must be strengthened, he said.  New, affordable housing will lead the way.  He asserted that Housing NY, the city’s plan, is the nation’s most ambitious effort to build affordable housing.

He turned the proceedings over to Stephen Everett, also of the DCP, who explained some of the city’s figures and formulas aimed at increasing affordable housing.  He said there is a lack of affordable housing but no lack of a growing body of seniors likely to need what is now in short supply.  At the same time, federal effort and resources are dwindling.  The DCP has studied a range of area median incomes (AMI) and those who earn them, from the well below (30 percent AMI) to the well above (165 percent AMI).  The agency came up with a few options.  The first posited 25 percent affordable housing at average AMI of 65 percent (leaving the remainder as market rate).  The second posited 30 percent affordable housing at 80 percent AMI and a third 20 percent affordable at 40 percent AMI.  If the builder chooses to put affordable units off-site, another 5 percent is added to the affordable part of the entire project.

The DCP has looked at low-density districts where multifamily housing is allowed, though with height limits, Everett said.  Some of these would be for senior housing, where parking facilities could be few in number, especially if the housing were in a transit zone.  Building setbacks would allow a builder greater FAR, or floor-area ratio, though the height limit would be 55 feet and elevators would be required, especially for seniors.  The setbacks would allow the street wall to start somewhat behind the street line, allowing plantings at the ground level and bay windows on the floors above.  The DCP observed that the widespread practice of building to the street line resulted in a boring uniformity of street walls and ground floor dwellings at street level, which to the dweller can feel intrusive.

Young returned, to speak first about Long Island City, then downtown Flushing and its waterfront area by the bay.  Long Island City may be the prime Queens story of the moment.  Its East River waterfront area development has boomed, mainly with high rise housing, and its inland area is has many new multi-unit residential buildings.  But also, the Department of Health now resides in Queens Plaza’s Gotham Building, with Jet Blue Airlines on the other side of the plaza and City University of New York Law School a few blocks away.  Those last two have relocated from other parts of Queens.  Their presence should be emphasized as indicating continued industrial and business growth in a part of the borough that a few years ago was considered by some to be disappearing with the huge onset of residential growth.  All told, Queens has the city’s most diversified economy, and is the leader in its industrial base, Young said.

He called downtown Flushing the busiest part of the city outside Manhattan.  The downtown area is being developed with greenery and parkland that will join it with the waterfront in a “seamless connection,” he said.  It will be relatively close to the La Guardia Airport runways, so residential housing there will have to be low-rise, with a 14-story limit, considering the air traffic taking off or landing.  But the small industry shops that persist there will have to be fully enclosed before the waterfront plan can proceed.  Another big plan is a bus transit center, which is a better deal for the busy, 12-line bus traffic crowding Main Street and side streets.  Young said the transit center would be best combined with mixed-use high-rise housing.  Replying to a question from Cory Bearak, a public policy counsel, Young said that half the bus lines might have “break space” at the transit center at any one time.  As for automobile traffic, Bruce Bendell, of Major Auto on Northern Boulevard in Long Island City, told Young he’d like to work with the DCP on parking in the growing “sharing” economy.  It might entail having space for auto rental and leasing in residential buildings. 

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