The battered factories and derelict workshops that line First Street in Astoria are likely a thing of the past. The small peninsula just south of the Queensboro Bridge, home to one of the poorest communities in Queens, has been targeted as the potential site of major development that would radically change the neighborhood.
The plans would bring much-needed resources to the area, but may carry a cost that outweigh the benefits.
“The situation is very difficult, very complicated,” Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) said. “Whatever the end result is, you’re going to have a lot of unhappy people.”
There are three development plans for the area in varying stages of progress. The first, a project by the firm Lincoln Equities to build about 2,000 apartment units in a residential tower community called Hallets Point, has been in the works for years. Another firm, Alma Realty, plans to submit its plan to build 1,800 units on the North side of the peninsula to the City Council by the end of the year. The owners of a lumber yard adjacent to the Alma Realty property are in the process of looking for a development partner.
Perhaps the greatest concern about the projects is the juxtaposition of the Astoria Houses public housing alongside the proposed new high-rises. Preliminary designs for Hallets Point show residential towers as close as across the street from Astoria Houses buildings. Currently, the two most prominent features of the area are the 22 buildings of the Astoria Houses and a collection of run-down industrial warehouses.
Community organizer Ronnie Minor says he and his fellow neighborhood residents insist on a collaborative agreement with developers.
“We understand the value of all of this waterfront property. We control the waterfront and we’re going to fight for it. As long as I’m alive, I’m going to fight for it,” he said.
Minor says an agreement must be made that guarantees local residents jobs working in the construction phase as well as positions in the retail shops that will be included once the buildings are up. He says the community will resist the developments unless 10 percent of the money spent on construction goes to the area.
“Without that budget, I don’t see the buildings getting built,” he said.
There is precedent for such an arrangement. Management of Reality House, a charity residence for veterans and substance abuse treatment center, required contractors to employ residents from the Astoria Houses when building its new facility in the area.
“I think that anyone coming into a community should think: ‘I need to treat these people with dignity and I’ll get it in return,’” said Onaje Mu’id, clinical associate director of Reality House. “You can’t just come into a community and put something up without cooperation.”
Community Board 1 District Manager Lucille Hartmann said the new project’s developers are taking strides to work with residents.
“They’re working very closely with the Astoria houses. They’re trying to work it out,” she said.
Attempts to contact the developers for specifics were unsuccessful.
There is little debate that the neighborhood is in great need of basic amenities. “That area is in desperate need of development,” said Vallone. “There is no supermarket, no bank, and the waterfront is decrepit.”
Both Hallets Point and the Alma Realty plans include a supermarket and other retail necessities as well as parkland along the river.
“[Residents] haven’t had much to go on such as basic amenities,” said John MacCallum, a project manager at the architecture firm Studio V, which designed the Hallets Point project. “The talk is about building what you would expect that a neighborhood would need, especially a neighborhood that has essentially nothing.”
There is general consensus in the community that a supermarket is sorely needed, but some are concerned the new housing will cause a spike in rental rates that may price out long-term residents.
“Looks like this place is only going to be for rich people. They’re going to push all the poor people out,” said Lavar Towels, 74, who has lived in the Astoria Houses for 35 years.
There is also concern that the thousands of new residents coming into the developments will overwhelm the already strained infrastructure of the area.
Vallone said his vote for approval of the projects will rely on whether the city is willing to augment public transportation in the area through increased bus service and a ferry stop.
Lincoln Equities, the developer of the Hallets Cove property, was represented by the lobbying firm Constantinople & Vallone, which counts Vallone’s brother Perry and father, Peter Sr., as principal board members. The city lobbying database shows that Constantinople & Vallone had disbursed $215,000 on behalf of Lincoln Equities to city agencies for real estate concerns since 2009.
The councilman said his family’s firm will have no bearing on whether or not he will vote to approve the developments.
“They are not allowed to talk to me or talk to my staff in any way. And that hasn’t happened,” he said. “As soon as the matter was submitted to the City Council they stopped their representation.”
Each of the developments must be approved by the council before being built. There will be public hearings held for each of the projects when they are submitted.
The version online was changed from the printed version. Constantinople & Vallone stopped representing Lincoln Equities as of April 2012.