At Witt’s End: Julie Won’s political pandering

Julie Won
Angélica Acevedo/QNS
Stephen Witt

Politically, City Councilwoman Julie Won (D-Queens) is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Had she been born just a few blocks over – in say Astoria, signing off on a seemingly great development project bringing both affordable housing and more open space to the district would have been a no brainer. That’s exactly what City Council Member Tiffany Cabán did in supporting the Halletts North rezoning.

But Cabán can do that. She has the luxury of being the darling of all the progressives in the district, and will have no problem in getting re-elected next year.

Won, on the other hand, won a nail biter of a city council race last year against Amit Bagga and 14 other candidates. Expect Bagga, who had the support of the Working Families Party, to again challenge her next year. And if not Bagga, somebody else from the left.

Which could well be the reason behind Won’s reluctance to support the $2 billion Innovation QNS plan. A plan approved by the local community board, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and Mayor Eric Adams.

The developers behind the proposal — Silverstein Properties, BedRock and Kaufman Astoria Studios — are seeking to build 12 buildings, with eight standing at over 15 floors and the two largest at 27 floors that would rise on a five-block area of southwest Astoria centered on Steinway Street and 35th Avenue. 

Here’s what the developers bring to the table:

If approved, Innovation QNS would be the largest privately developed addition of affordable homes in the history of Queens. It will create 1,100 permanently affordable homes including 500+ deeply affordable homes for New Yorkers most in need – in a neighborhood where there is virtually no housing available for under $1,500 a month.

The 500 deeply affordable homes would be accessible to New Yorkers earning between $28,000-$40,000 for families of four (30% area median income, or AMI). Monthly rents include $514 for a studio, $652 for a one bedroom, $770 for a two bedroom and $878 for a three bedroom apartment.

By comparison, Halletts North in the same Community Board has only 365 affordable homes.

In addition to needed housing, Innovation QNS will create 5,400 jobs – with commitments to target 30% local hiring and MWBE contracting – 2+ acres of new open space in a neighborhood that ranks 53rd out of 59 in the city for green space) and expanded services for immigrants, young people and other vulnerable members of the community.

Finally, this is not your typical case of a developer coming into a neighborhood it doesn’t know. Kaufman Astoria Studios has been part of this community for over 40 years and is leading the development. The studios are located across the street from the development site and they have earned the trust of many of their neighboring residents, small business owners, non-profits and cultural institutions during that time.

Won has said previously she would not support the project unless the housing component included 50% affordable housing. The developers said they can do 40% – which is a full 15% above the 25% minimum for affordable housing under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) laws. 

Now Won has moved the goal posts and is demanding 55% of the housing be affordable.

It’s hard to get elected to the city council and harder to be an elected official, but Council Member Won’s moment of truth is coming early in her career.

If she is working for the good of the community or is she looking ahead to next year’s election?