Last Tuesday, nearly 50 residents, advocates and political candidates protested outside Starside Drugs, a local pharmacy chain owned by Councilman Peter Koo, to speak out against the propsosal to develop the 29-acre site along Flushing Creek.
On the other side of the street, roughly 200 residents and construction workers rallied in the plaza of Queens Crossing plaza in favor of the development.
The project calls for building 1,725 units of housing, including up to 90 affordable apartments at 80 percent of the area median income, as well as nearly 900 hotel rooms and retail and office space.
The district, owned by three developers, would include remediation of the contaminated waterfront, extended open space, and a private road network.
The dueling rallies shined a spotlight on Koo, who represents the area in the City Council and whose vote will be an important factor in the project’s fate. Typically, in a tradition known as “member deference,” City Council members follow the district representative’s vote on land use matters.
Sarah Ahn, an organizer with the Flushing Workers Center, a group opposed to the project, said Koo “failed” the community after coming out in support of the Special Flushing Waterfront District.
She said since last December, opponents of the project have been participating in hearings, calling his office and asking to meet to no avail.
“You are failing to represent the people,” Ahn said. “We feel we haven’t had the chance to make our voices heard.”
Critics argue that the development would drive up rents and displace current residents like Sam Song, a nail salon worker who has lived in Flushing for two decades. Song said he lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his family, paying $2,000 a month for rent.
“My family has to rent out our living room to be able to afford it,” he said.
Brooklyn Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who is also running for mayor, was one of several current and aspiring elected officials to voice opposition to the waterfront district.
Menchaca’s opposition to the Industry City rezoning proposal in his own district led to the project being withdrawn altogether.
“Sunset Park is with you in every single way because we just fought our own battle,” he said. “This rezoning will come crashing down in flames. Industry City went down crashing in flames.”
The mayoral hopeful told the crowd of rallygoers that Council members are listening to their voices. He noted that the influential labor unions 32BJ SEIU and the Hotel Trades Council are also critics of the project.
“The gap between what the developers have to do and what the labor unions want is so big,” Menchaca said. “It’s not going to happen.
“You have huge support in the City Council,” he added. “The vote will happen and I will be a no. I will not be the only no.”
Later that day, a group of 12 City Council members, led by Councilman Francisco Moya, chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, issued a statement expressing their concerns about the waterfront proposal.
They said the project “ignores the real urgent needs of the Flushing community,” and lacks community benefits like “real affordable housing and commitments to good jobs for local community members.”
“This year has forced us to examine the needs of our working-class communities in a deeper and more holisitc way,” they said. “Approving this rezoning as it currently stands would be a grave mistake.”
Michael Wang, founder of the commercial real estate brokerage Project Queens, came out of his office, which overlooks the site of the dueling protests, to check out the commotion. Wang, a Flushing native and a supporter of the waterfront district, said the project is “incredibly important” to the neighborhood.
He recalled as a young child driving along the Van Wyck Expressway with his family and talking about how much the toxic river smells.
“That was a running joke for the longest time,” he said.
Wang pointed to another Queens waterfront open space, Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, and asked why Flushing couldn’t have something similar.
“Who doesn’t like that?” he said. “It’s an amazing area.”
The commercial real estate broker said to fail to develop the Flushing waterfront would be worse than shutting down Amazon’s HQ2 in Long Island City or stopping the rezoning of Industry City in Sunset Park because this project untilizes no public money.
“As a Flushing native, this hits home super hard,” he added.
Michelle Hu, one of the nearly 200 people who demonstrated at Queens Crossing in support of the SFWD, listed the thousands of jobs, public park and roadway network as reasons why she is in favor of the project.
“We are the residents here,” Hu said. “People need to hear our voice, not people from the outside.”
As for the focus on Koo, Hu said the community “loves Peter Koo” and will “support anything that he supports.”
“Peter Koo wants to support this project because this project brings a lot of community benefits,” she added. “We want to support Peter Koo too.”
FWRA LLC, the consortium comprised of F&T Group, United Construction & Development Group and Young Nian Group, the three developers that own the project sites, said in a statement that supporters for the project and Koo “far outnumbered” the protesters against the development.
The consortium also said it was “despicable to intentionally cause harm to a small business” owned by Koo.
“Our project aims to support small businesses,” they said, “and it seems the opposition is determined to rob Flushing of that opportunity.
“We’ve been working towards a community-driven plan for this waterfront since 2004,” the developers added. “We won’t stop fighting for Flushing and for a better future.”