Developing the waterfront, transforming Willets Point, and solving traffic and parking problems were among the top priorities Flushing residents voiced to consultants at an informational meeting Monday, hosted by Community Board 7 at Union Plaza Care Center in Flushing.
The meeting was the second in a series led by representatives from Atlanta-based architectural firm Cooper Carry. The city hired the firm last year to create a long-term development plan for the bustling downtown area.
Cooper Carry President Ben Wauford emphasized that the firm was still in the information-gathering stage and was seeking suggestions from the community. They plan to turn in their report, consisting of “a long-term vision, supported by short-term projects,” by June.
The meeting was a follow-up to a two-day planning session in February, sponsored by the Economic Development Corporation. At the workshop, Cooper Carry representatives listened to the concerns and hopes of 135 residents, business owners and community leaders.
On Monday, they presented the consensus from that meeting in the form of a mission statement and “guiding principles” to direct development of parking, transportation, land use, open space and pedestrians.
Experts from Cooper Carry gave slide presentations on Flushing’s pedestrian walkways, traffic, neighborhood interaction, history, and open spaces, in most cases offering visual examples of situations that the community already knew.
One expert demonstrated Flushing’s unique compactness, showing how almost everything downtown, including the waterfront, is accessible in a five-minute walk.
Another confirmed the seriousness of the parking issue. His parking surveys showed that every parking lot downtown was over 100 percent full, meaning not only were there more cars parked than spaces, but there were cars clearly circling around looking for spaces.
A retail specialist said that the average household income was supposed to jump from $55,000 to $75,000 per year by 2010, making way for significant economic growth in the area.
After examining the maps and listening to the presentations, 60 community members responded to the findings. Throughout the discussion, the focus was on how to maintain quality of life for Flushing residents while encouraging economic growth.
Most people agreed that parking is Flushing’s main problem. “Lot Number One is the problem. People go there first because they think they’re going to get a space, and they just drive around and around and around,” said CB#7 member Nick Miglino.
Millicent O’Mealy, another member, suggested building high-rise parking structures. “It would help solve the parking problem and create more open space,” she said.
Other suggested parking solutions included encouraging parking west of Main Street and maximizing awareness of public and private parking options besides the municipal lot in the center of town.
The 23 bus lines that feed into the center of downtown were put forth as another major problem. The consultants suggested decentralizing the buses, but Community Board 7 member Victor Ross had a more long-term suggestion.
“Our borough has been shortchanged as far as subways are concerned, which is why we have the 23 bus lines. The real way to solve the transportation issue is to extend the subway east,” he said.
The greatest point of consensus was on Flushing’s need for more green space. “When I was growing up in Flushing in the 40’s, the air was fragrant with honeysuckle and wild rose. Now it’s concrete everywhere you look,” said Evangeline Egglezos, executive director of the Bowne House Historical Society.
She spoke of Flushing’s history as the birthplace of many of New York’s first nurseries in the 19th century. “We can market our history. We haven’t done that yet,” she said, pointing out that tourists who come for history and education spend more and stay longer than those who come only for entertainment.
Lawrence Yeh, an entertainer and business lawyer, believed Flushing could become an entertainment and cultural destination, but only after it better serves its youth. “There is only one cinema, and you can only reach it by car,” he said.
Most people agreed that Flushing could become a destination, and that the place to make this happen was the waterfront. Community board member Phil Konigsberg offered the example of the Riverwalk in San Antonio, which integrated trees, hotels and restaurants, as a possible model for Flushing.
One of the toughest questions was what to do about Willets Point. From the February workshop, the firm had come up with a mission statement that included “enhancing the quality of life on both sides of the river.” Most people in the room agreed that cleaning up Willets Point was integral to developing Flushing, but no one had answers about what to do with the current tenants.
“We’ve always heard talk about developing Willets Point, but there are 2,600 people employed there. What will happen to them?” Ross asked.
He also pointed out that many businesses have gotten loans from the city to expand on Willets Point and reminded the planners of the water table, electricity and Department of Transportation issues associated with the area.
Danny Sambucci, a Whitestone resident whose family has owned and operated Sambucci Brothers Used Auto Parts in Willets Point for 50 years, asked what the plans were for the area.
Wauford replied that there were no specific plans, but he has heard from the community that “developing Willets Point is incredibly important to Flushing.” He pointed out that this is the first time such a development has been involved in a city planning process for Flushing.
Sammy Sambucci, Danny’s brother, expressed frustration that no one from the city has been talking to the Willets Point property owners about its plans.
“The property owners themselves are interested in developing the property here, but no one will work with us. It looks like they’re just planning to condemn the property,” he said.
Some residents were concerned that focusing so much on development across the river would drain the vitality from Main Street.
“If Main Street dies because of our framework, we’ve failed,” Wauford said.
Reminders were given throughout the program that the only reason Flushing was having this meeting was because it was such a success.
“In a lot of ways, Flushing is blessed with congestion, compared with other cities that are struggling to revive their downtowns. It isn’t broken. It has infrastructure and amenities that other cities would kill for,” Wauford said.
At the end of the six-month planning process, Cooper Carry will offer implementation strategies based on the community’s concerns and ideas. The city is then expected to issue requests for proposals to private developers by the end of the year.
“This is not a master plan, this is a framework for development,” Wauford said. “Our success will be measured by the number of shovels that go in the dirt.”