Dueling rallies took over the steps of City Hall Wednesday morning, one for and the other against the controversial Innovation QNS megadevelopment being considered for the Astoria section of Queens during a City Council subcommittee on zoning meeting Wednesday.
On one side of the debate, is Queens Borough President Donovan Richards – who initially opposed the development but has come around – powerful labor unions like 32BJ SEIU and Laborers Local 79 and – as of Monday – Mayor Eric Adams. On the other side, fiercely opposing the project in its current form, is the local City Council Member Julie Won (D-Queens), Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and U.S. Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens).
The proposed $2 billion mixed-use development from developers Silverstein Properties, BedRock and Kaufman Astoria Studios would come in at 2.7 million-square-feet, taking up five city blocks in the southeastern section of Astoria. It would comprise 12 towers, some as tall as 27 stories, containing approximately 2,800 new apartments, retail and community space and a new movie theater.
At issue is the amount of affordable housing the development promises to deliver to western Queens residents. As of last month, the project contains 40% permanently affordable units, which is up from the initial 25% proposed by the developers, bringing the number of affordable units to 1,100. Five hundred of those units would be set aside for those making 30% of the area median income (AMI), that’s individuals making roughly $28,020 a year or families of four making around $40,000.
Richards first voted against the project as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) in August, although it was ultimately approved by the City Planning Commission, but changed his stance after the developers upped the project’s affordability level last month. Over the past week, Richards has been publicly advocating for the project and calling out those against it in several Twitter threads.
During the rally in favor of the development on the City Hall steps Wednesday, Richards said Queens is in a “state of emergency” after being the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, receiving more migrants in recent months than any other borough and experiencing an ongoing housing shortage. Part of alleviating that shortage, Richards said, is to approve projects like Innovation QNS, so more affordable housing can finally be built.
“It’s very clear, we have a choice: we can play a zero sum game and be cute, or we can build affordable housing and build good jobs,” Richards said. “That is the choice that we have to make here today.”
“If you know me, you know that we negotiate hard,” Richards continued. “And it’s one of the reasons that in August, I did turn this project down. I voted against it because we did need to see more affordable housing put back on the table. Seven hundred units were not enough and certainly we needed to see some 30% AMI units in the plan. But to the developer’s credit, we got it.”
However, Won and other opponents are against the project because only 25% of the affordable units would be directly financed by the developers and the other 15% would be covered by city subsidies, the sources of which have yet to be identified. Opponents have also voiced concerns about the project leading to rapid gentrification and displacing low-income communities of color living in western Queens.
Last week, Won said she would vote against the project unless the developers commit to 55 percent affordability and urged her City Council colleagues to also vote “no” in an email leaked to the press. Won holds a lot of sway over whether the project ultimately gets approved by the council, as the body often defers to the local council members on land use decisions – a practice referred to as “member deference.”
While giving her remarks ahead of the hearing, Won acknowledged that the city is currently in a housing crisis but said the only way it can be addressed is to hold developers to making their projects a majority affordable units.
“Astoria has always been the landing pad for immigrants like me, immigrants like us, working class people that make up the city,” Won said. “And you are coming here to us saying ‘take the bare minimum of 25% affordability.’ We are no longer willing to accept the crumbs to say that this is enough. Our community deserves better and the only way for us to fight back on the housing crisis is to build more affordable housing. We as a community are here to say that we need to build affordable housing that’s affordable for all of us.”
But Richards said that his negotiations to get the project to a higher percentage of affordability were done in tandem with Won and now she’s moving the goalposts.
“I do appreciate the council woman wanting to push for more, and she absolutely should,” Richards said. “But at the end of the day, you have to be clear on your goals. What are your goals? What is your number? And if you’re not projecting a clearer definition, or defining the project as you want it to be. Then how can developers work with you? How could you arrive at a number?”
There won’t be a vote on the project during Wednesday’s hearing, but the project is likely to go before the council sometime next month, according to the council press office.