On June 5, Chhaya Community Development Corporation, MinKwon Center for Community Action, the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, and local filmmaker Robert LoScalzo filed an Article 78 proceeding challenging the city’s decision to end environmental review on December 16.
Represented by attorneys from TakeRoot Justice, a nonprofit legal services provider, the coalition is arguing that the city agencies made an error by not requiring a full environmental impact statement for the massive rezoning and development project.
“We believe the city has grossly underestimated and miscalculated the detrimental impact this plan will have on the community members in Flushing and surrounding neighborhoods,” said Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya CDC.
Seecharran said communities are facing increasing pressure from gentrification and being displaced “at an accelerating rate” precisely because the city has not considered how luxury developments impact the neighborhoods in which they are built.
As a result, living conditions deteriorate, and schools, hospitals and transit systems become overwhelmed, she said.
By not requiring FWRA LLC, the consortium of three developers behind the project, to conduct a full environmental review, the city has “fast-tracked yet another project” that will lead to more displacement and overcrowding, Seecharran argued.
“If given the opportunity to hear directly from community voices, the City Council, City Planning Commission and the mayor will see that the last thing Flushing needs is another massive luxury development,” she said.
The Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD) proposal, which covers 29 acres along Flushing Creek, would create 1,725 units of housing, including 90 affordable apartments at 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). It would have retail, hotels, office space and other amenities.
For months, the developers have touted the benefits of the project, including cleaning up the contaminated site, expanding access to the waterfront, establishing a private road network and providing more pedestrian connections to Downtown Flushing.
Supporters of the plan have also previously warned that if the rezoning is not approved, the developers will build on the site anyway, without having to deliver on any community benefits.
In February, Community Board 7 voted 30-8 in favor of the SFWD project. Later that month, Acting Borough President Sharon Lee recommended against the plan.
John Choe, executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, a CB7 member and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the proposal would add “massive burdens” to the neighborhood, including traffic congestion, escalating rents and crowded classrooms.
He argued that many local business owners, including members of the chamber, would be hurt by the development.
“Our Article 78 lawsuit is putting the city on notice that our community will no longer tolerate the rubber-stamping of another corporate giveaway,” Choe said. “We demand and deserve a comprehensive environmental review.”
John Park, executive director of the MinKwon Center, noted that New York has the highest net migration loss of any state in the country, with 164,000 people leaving the Empire State between 2016 and 2017.
The main reason cited by those leaving New York was the rising cost of living, which Park said is anchored by the state’s “broken housing system.”
In 2015, when the city proposed the Flushing West rezoning, the MinKwon Center held town halls and surveyed more than 300 Flushing residents, Park said. The organization then published a white paper based on community recommendations.
The survey found that for 74 percent of residents, the top concern was the lack of affordable housing. Nearly 30 percent of respondents said they were worried about neighbors being displaced.
Park said that the proposed AMI for the affordable housing units in the SFWD proposal is still twice the median income of Flushing residents, making it unaffordable.
“That shows a real disconnect of the developers and the needs of the community,” he said. “It also reveals the priorities of the developers.”
He added that considering the scale of the development, not requiring further environmental review was an error.
“Anything that will have this kind of impact on our community, which will transform Flushing,” Park said, “it is very irresponsible to not require an EIS.”
LoScalzo, a Whitestone resident who has been producing a documentary about Willets Point, joined the lawsuit as an individual. He said he is aware of the cumulative effects of plans to develop in Willets Point, the Flushing waterfront and build an AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport.
“There would be a lot of intense activity and construction,” he said.
LoScalzo said he thought it was preposterous that the city would allow the city to “basically skate” without preparing an EIS for the proposed rezoning. The filmmaker and historian noted that public hearings normally accompany the environmental review process.
“The developers would have to listen to the comments they receive from the public and be obligated to respond in writing to the concerns,” he added. “Here, there’s been no dialogue at all with the developers.”
Although the Uniformed Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) has been paused due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Department of City Planning is working to determine next steps and ensure public participation, according to DCP spokesperson Joe Marvilli.
“We are reviewing the petition,” Marvilli said in a statement. “The Special Flushing Waterfront District is before the City Planning Commission, awaiting its public hearing once ULURP resumes.”