Queens Neighborhoods United puts up a fight against Elmhurst Target development

Queens Neighborhoods United, a community-based group made up of members from Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst, will hold a carnival Saturday with a section of the fest dedicated towards political education and focused on the development of a Target that the organization doesn’t want in its area.

In 2014, QNU was founded with the impetus to establish community-control over public land, and tackle issues surrounding businesses in the region, policing, immigration, education while fighting against displacement, which is what it fears will happen to small general stores and groceries with the creation of a big-box general retailer.

The proposed location for the Target is 40-31 82nd St. in Elmhurst near the border of Jackson Heights.

“On 82nd Street in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst there are all small businesses that run and serve low-income immigrant communities and that is what we are trying to maintain,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, a member of QNU. “That means there is affordable rent, that means that there are places for folks who don’t necessarily speak English comfortably to find jobs and to shop, and that means there is affordable good that is sold there.”

The proposed Target facility would replace what was once an ethnic movie theater that used to screen big blockbusters alongside Spanish-language films and other international works, according to Kaufman-Gutierrez. Some residents wanted it to be transformed into a community center that would address the needs of small businesses and the locals.

“There is a store called Mei Mei that was right across the street where the landlord stated ‘that this is becoming a luxury neighborhood now and we are going to raise your rent by $3,000 as you renew your lease for next month,” said Kaufman-Gutierrez. “The owner was completely unable to afford that kind of rent increase just like that and they shut down. That is what we anticipate happening with a development like this Target, like this mall.”

QNU also has a problem with Target using a loophole in zoning rules to build a 23,000-square-foot space by splitting some of its footage above ground and underground in a residential region zoned specifically for small businesses that are 10,000-square-feet, according to Kaufman-Gutierrez. This unprecedented move will impact both small businesses and residential areas that have similar zoning policies across the city.

“Currently, in New York City there are no regulations of how large you can build commercially underground in a residential neighborhood,” said Kaufman-Gutierrez. “We are taking Target to court and we are taking the Queens Department of Buildings to court. We are trying to regulate that oversight.”

The NYC Board of Standards and Appeals ruled in favor of Target, but QNU will appeal the decision with the New York State Supreme Court.

The Board of Standards and Appeals was not available for comment.

Target believes it has done everything to conform to zoning rules, according to spokeswoman Jacque DeBuse. It initially was going to be 13 stories above ground and they planned a second draft of the plans to include an apartment complex with 40 percent of below-market units.

“We have worked through the development process to ensure that we conform with all local zoning rules and planning guidelines,” said DeBuse. “In terms of design and scale, our store will be about the same size footprint as several other national retailers that have been operating in the Jackson Heights community for years.”

DeBuse said that Target wants to “serve” the local communities its stores are located.

“We’ve been serving neighborhoods throughout New York for more than 20 years, and our philosophy all along has been really simple: take care of our guests, take care of our team and be great neighbors,” said DeBuse. “We’ve spent months learning how to best serve the community – not just to make sure we have the right products on the shelves, but to determine how we can work together to support the things they care about most.”

Kaufman-Gutierrez believes that the Target development as well as the new Gap, Banana Republic and Cohen’s Optical in the region is the fault of the 82nd Business Improvement District.

“They are supposed to be supporting small businesses, but in reality in the last seven to 10 years,” said Kaufman-Gutierrez “have been transformed into chain stores that have been able to pay higher rent. The BID is supporting these higher rents because property owners have decided to be a part of that organization.”

Leslie Ramos, the executive director of the 82nd Street BID, disagrees with Kaufman-Gutierrez assessment of the development going on in the area and the improvement district’s role.

“Our membership is divided about the Target and even those that have an opinion, their opinion keeps shifting,” said Ramos. “When it comes to the project, we are neutral. We are not going to engage because some people see it as beneficial to the community and others were concerned when it was going to be a full-sized Target.”

The Target will be smaller than its usual scale and is expected to adjust its items to reflect what those in the region might want, according to Ramos who along with other BID members were approached by the big-box store and received a flier for the retailer about their plans.

Some of the restaurants and small businesses are looking forward to the foot traffic the Target will bring to their stores, according to Ramos.

“I have to say that with a caveat because the Target will be approximately 7000-square-feet larger than the Rite Aid that is on 82nd Street and some are still concerned about the scale,” said Ramos. “We don’t know who this is going to attract.”

Ramos has met people who have been to a smaller scaled Target in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and asked them about their feelings of the more city-based version of the big-box store.

“They were not impressed,” said Ramos.

Since the construction at the site, Ramos has also received complaints about traffic slowing down and double-parking increasing.

“I’m eager to see what happens,” said Ramos. “This city-based version of Target is new.”

Ramos also had a conversation with Target about whey they decided on Elmhurst for its new location.

“They highlighted that they have a large number of online purchases from the region and they plan on having a locker room to store some of the items,” said Ramos. “From a traffic perspective, this might be better to have a central drop-off site then to have tons of trucks dropping in. Once again, we are neutral, but I’m just looking at the broader view from what I know.”

Ramos also said that the purpose of the BID is to make sure that businesses are engaged with the community and get the resources that they need to thrive and that it is not in the business of courting or choosing what firms are there, but reaches out to any new organization that establishes itself in the region.

“To make this clear, we are not a real estate agency,” said Ramos. “We don’t feel the need to recruit any business to come to our neighborhood. If any business opens in our district we do talk to them about what we do and about them becoming good neighbors.”

Out of curiosity, Ramos hopes either the store or the city or federal government will provide statistics on whether the opening of the Target in a new area has alleviated any traffic.

The flier Ramos received from the retailer stressed that Target intends to hire 60 to 70 local team members and that throughout the country all of its employees will make $15 hourly. Students pursuing their GED, Bachelors degree or a Master’s degree would be able to be apart of their tuition reimbursement program, scholarship and tuition discount programs.

The BID has pushed Target to also consider hiring students from the Queens College in Flushing who are bilingual, LGBT and minorities, according to Ramos.

“They did stop by my office and said they wanted to be good neighbors, so I told them what is important to our neighborhood,” said Ramos. “I’m more interested in seeing what is going to happen at Rite Aid or Duane Reade because this development could influence the prices at those two pharmacies. There are so many unknowns, but that is my curiosity about urban planning.”

For Kaufman-Gutierrez, Target’s promises to the neighborhood mean nothing because of its history of not unionizing, wage theft of undocumented workers in other states and pushing out minority street vendors that were on the block.

“Target is blatantly anti-union,” said Kaufman-Gutierrez. “The development will also raise the rent of residents. This is just gentrification.”

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