March 25, 2021 By Christian Murray
The rezoning application filed by Phipps Houses was passed by the City Council today–making way for a seven-story, 167-affordable housing complex to go up at 50-25 Barnett Ave.
The vote, which passed 49-0, marked the final step in the rezoning process–which officially means the development can proceed. The controversial plan had already been approved by Community Board 2, the Queens Borough President and the City Planning Commission.
The application had the backing of Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer who spoke in favor of it–via Zoom–prior to the vote.
“The project before us today is 100 percent affordable and vastly improved from the one I rejected four years ago,” Van Bramer said. The previous application, filed by Phipps in 2016, called for a 10-story building, with the affordable units designated for people with higher incomes than the current plan.
Van Bramer said that Phipps’ latest proposal is smaller in scale and deeply affordable.
“Affordable levels represent the deepest we’ve seen in Sunnyside, with a set aside for formerly homeless families, and many units at 40 percent Area Median Income with a maximum of 80 percent AMI [$90,960 for a family of four].”
Van Bramer said that the height of the building was lower– at seven stories–than what was proposed five years ago. He said Phipps had also pledged to provide union jobs, which it didn’t do in 2016.
The councilman noted that Phipps had also agreed to upgrade its existing Sunnyside Garden complex on 39th Avenue, which many residents had argued had fallen into disrepair.
“There is a real action plan of immediate improvements that Phipps is complying with,” he told the council today.
Van Bramer also spoke out against those who opposed the plan.
“While some have used disingenuous arguments against this project—I will not deny homeless families and low wage workers a home by allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” he said.
“And we who say we are for the Green New Deal should jump at replacing a surface parking lot with affordable housing, and not allow NIMBY arguments to stop truly affordable housing to be built on this site.”
The application, despite its smooth passage in the council, was not without controversy.
Opponents argued that Phipps’ application should have been denied, citing the conditions of its Sunnyside Garden complex, which is located across the street from the proposed development.
At a public hearing in November, Phipps was subject to a raft of complaints from tenants who lived at the 472-unit Garden complex. They spoke of garbage, mice and cockroach problems—as well as the garden areas falling into disrepair.
The community board, given the criticism, called on Phipps to fix the apartments and put together a carefully crafted 90-day maintenance plan for it to follow. The community board then approved Phipps’ rezoning application, 28-12, on the condition that it stuck to the maintenance plan.
The plan called on Phipps to hire an additional porter; expand its pest control/extermination services; clean out dry wells; fix the laundry room; investigate what’s needed to address drainage problems; and put in place a tree pruning schedule.
Last week, Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez issued a statement saying that Phipps had not met the conditions of the agreement. She did not, however, come out in opposition to the proposed development.
“Phipps Houses made a commitment to the community that they would promptly address the maintenance issues at Gardens Apartment,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. “Their failure to do so is upsetting.”
Phipps, however, argued that it had stuck to the maintenance plan and Lisa Deller, Chair of Community Board 2, said that the organization had made a number of upgrades.
Yesterday, Phipps, however, faced heavy criticism yet again after a fire broke out at the Garden complex, leading to at least eight units being severely damaged. Some tenants blamed Phipps, saying that one of its contractors drilled a hole in a wall and hit an electrical wire–sparking the blaze.
Phipps, however, said that it was not to blame for the fire, saying that it started in a tenant’s apartment where a contractor was doing work without its knowledge or permission.
Several candidates running for city council were opposed to the proposal, including Emily Sharpe.
“Council Member Van Bramer’s decision to approve Phipps’ Barnett rezoning is extremely disappointing,” Sharpe said. “This rezoning, while called affordable, will exclude single adults and heads of households earning minimum wage…Additionally, the recent fire only underscores Phipps’ lack of regard for the well-being of its current tenants which is well-documented and has earned them a recurring spot on the city’s Worst Evictors list.”
Steve Madden, the fashion/shoe company that employs more than 400 people at its 52-16 Barnett Ave. location, also opposed the rezoning plan. It said that it would be forced to move out of the neighborhood if the development went ahead, since many of its employees rely on the site for parking.
“Without the public parking lot, Madden will have no reasonable way to maintain its Barnett Avenue presence,” the company said in a letter.
Phipps, however, maintained that many Steve Madden employees would be able to park in its new building, which would have 170 attended spaces, 91 of which would be available to the public.
Van Bramer’s vote today, however, was largely influenced by his desire to see affordable housing go up on the site. He also held the view that Phipps had taken steps to fix its Garden complex.
“We who proclaim ourselves progressives say we want to build housing that is truly affordable. And when we get the chance to do so—we should,” he told the council prior to the vote. “Particularly in expensive neighborhoods like Sunnyside.”
“We who say we are progressive say we want to permanently house the homeless. And when we get the chance to do so we must. Everyone must be welcome in the Sunnyside/Woodside area that I am lucky to call home. And with this vote we have a chance to say that emphatically.”
Meanwhile, Phipps issued a statement following the vote.
“We are pleased the City Council has voted unanimously in the rezoning of Barnett Avenue to allow for the creation of new, 100 percent affordable housing in Sunnyside,” a spokesperson for Phipps said in a statement.
“We appreciate the support and input we received from Councilmember Van Bramer, Queens Community Board Two, and Borough President Donovan Richards, as well as the City Planning Commission/Department of City Planning, in revising and formulating this important project. We look forward to a groundbreaking, and to continuing to work with our residents and neighbors in Sunnyside Gardens.”