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City Planning Commission Approves Innovation QNS, Although Councilmember Won Remains Unimpressed

The City Planning Commission voted in favor of a rezoning application that would bring more than 2,800 units to a 5-block area in Astoria. Rendering of 35th Avenue (Courtesy of ODA New York) Photo of Councilmember Julie Won (Photo NYC Council)

Sept. 21, 2022 By Czarinna Andres

The City Planning Commission voted in favor of the massive Innovation QNS project Wednesday, although the person that matters most on the future of the plan—Councilmember Julie Won—was far from impressed.

The commission voted 10-3 in favor of the plan that calls for the development of 2,843 apartments in a 5-block area in the vicinity of Steinway Street and 35th Avenue. The plan, which requires the area to be rezoned in order for it to move forward, would include 711 affordable apartments (25 percent of the total units) in accordance with the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing requirements.

The plan earned the support of the chair of the City Planning Commission, Dan Garodnick, who spoke in favor of it before the vote and recommended that the rezoning application be approved.

“I believe the commission should support Innovation QNS,” Garodnick said. “This expansive five block development would bring thousands of jobs across a range of sectors, along with more than 2.800 new apartments, about 700 of them permanently affordable. This is an opportunity to take the pressure off the rents in this and surrounding communities.”

“We should not let such an opportunity pass us by,” Garodnick added.

The commission approved the plan, despite Community Board 1 and the Queens Borough President rejecting it in their advisory capacity in recent months.

Won was highly critical of the City Planning Commission for approving the plan in its current form. She said that the commission failed to get the developers to commit to offering more affordable apartments—instead settling for the 25 percent minimum that the city requires.

“The City Planning Commission chose to rubber stamp this plan without a significant commitment for deep affordability to meet the community’s need for affordable housing,“ Won said in a statement.

She was also critical of the developers for continuing to move ahead with the rezoning application without addressing the community’s concerns that were raised at public hearings over the spring and summer months.

“The developers continue to disregard the community’s voice, choosing to move forward with a project that received major backlash at town halls this spring and the overwhelming disapproval by Queens Community Board 1. I have requested for the development team to return to the community again with modifications and we will not settle for a plan that is below 50 percent affordable,” Won said.

She said that nearly 70 percent of renters in the area near the development site are already rent-burdened or severely rent-burdened, with a current average rent of around $1,800.

“I cannot in good conscience add more market-rate luxury housing in my district where it continues to produce an upward trend in rising rents,” Won said.

The rendering presented to Community Board 1 (Screenshot)

The rezoning application calls for the creation of a mixed-use district between 37th Street and Northern Boulevard, bound by 35th and 36th Avenues, which would consist of more than a dozen buildings that would range in height from eight to 27 stories—as well as two acres of green space and space for nonprofits.

The developers—consisting of Silverstein Properties, Kaufman Astoria Studios and BedRock Real Estate Partners–said that the City Planning Commission’s approval was an important step in their quest to develop the area and that they look forward to working with the city council to get it approved.

“The need for affordable homes; family-sustaining jobs; public open space; and expanded services for immigrants, seniors and young people has never been greater, and today’s overwhelming approval of Innovation QNS by the City Planning Commission is an important step toward delivering all of that and more for our neighbors in Astoria,” said Tracy Capune, vice president of Kaufman Astoria Studios, in a statement prior to Won expressing her views.

“We look forward to working with Council Member Won and our neighbors in the weeks ahead to ensure City Council approval of this $2 billion investment at a critical moment for our community.”

But not all the commissioners were sold on the plan like Garodnick.

Commissioner Leah Goodridge, who voted against the rezoning, argued that the amount of affordable housing was not enough.

“I strongly feel like it is an inadequate amount of [affordable] housing,” Goodridge said, saying that only 25 percent of the proposed units would be affordable. “It’s not like we are talking 50 percent.”

Goodridge said that the city faces a homeless crisis and that its due to a lack of affordable housing. “This crisis right now is not because there aren’t enough luxury apartments available,” she said.

She also said that she was concerned about secondary displacement—where existing residents face the possibility of being priced out of the area due to the influx of high-income tenants moving into the market rate apartments.

The rezoning pertains to the area represented in pink (Screenshot)

The plan calls for 2,132 market rate apartments, with the 711 affordable units offered to residents who make an average of 60 percent of the Area Median Income ($80,000 for a family of four).

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards issued a statement following the vote that reiterated his calls for more affordable housing.

“I stand by my recommendation that certain commitments be made by the Innovation QNS development team to meet this moment, such as significantly increasing the number of affordable housing units and expanding the lowest affordable income band to those earning 30 percent of the area median income,” Richards said in a statement.

When Richards rejected the proposal on Aug. 4, he put forward some suggestions that he said would make the plan more plausible. These included allocating 50 percent of the units for affordable housing as well as offering more units to individuals or families earning 30 percent AMI ($40,000 for a family of four).

Richards remains open to the overarching plan—although his views are advisory.

“New York City is in the throes of a housing crisis, with Astoria families feeling that crush harder than most, but we have an incredible opportunity before us to reverse this tragic trend,” he said.

Data provided by the developer in the Racial and Equity Report

Chart from a developer presentation

The community board rejected the plan by a vote of 24-8 in June. The board voted the project down arguing that it is too big, with the buildings out of scale with the area. Additionally, its members said it didn’t provide enough affordable housing for low-income earners.

“I struggle to vote for a development that provides us the bare minimum of 25 percent affordability,” said board member Huge Ma at the time.

The plan will now go to the city council for a vote—and if the council approves it, the project can move forward. Won will likely to determine its fate, since the council typically votes in accordance with the wishes of the local representative.

Won is far from happy about the plan in its current form—and is certain to reject it, if it remains unchanged.

“The majority of the proposal remains market rate, luxury units with rents starting at $2,400 for a studio and up to $5,200 for one-two bedrooms for monthly rent,” she said. I refuse to inflict greater displacement and increase risk for evictions for working class families in my district.”

She reiterated her calls that more affordable units are needed.

“The developers are still offering only the minimum of 25 percent affordable apartments, calling on the city to utilize public dollars to provide any additional affordability,” she said. “My apprehension for this project remains, and I have serious concerns that this project will displace many immigrant and working-class residents that call this part of Astoria home.”

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