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Queens Chronicle

Katz hears both sides of Jackson Heights-Elmhurst development debate

Moya backs The Shoppes at 82nd Street

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Posted: Friday, May 4, 2018 4:15 pm

A new battleground emerged this week in the fight over a proposed rezoning on 82nd Street near the Jackson Heights-Elmhurst line.

Borough President Melinda Katz's monthly land use public hearing.

For nearly two hours on Thursday, the approximately 50 people who had crammed into Katz's conference room took turns turns blasting and applauding the planned mixed-use development.

To some, the proposed 145-foot-tall building slated for 40-31 82 St. — dubbed The Shoppes at 82nd Street — will help gentrify the neighborhood and push out longtime residents and small business owners.

To others, the construction project and subsequent commercial establishments that would be located in the building — such as a 22,000-square-foot Target department store — will create hundreds of good-paying jobs.

"It's a building in my neighborhood, but it's not for my neighbors," said Community Board 4 member and Elmhurst resident Redd Sevilla. "These families who make $40,000 or $50,000 a year are the ones who make up the diversity and the cultural richness of the neighborhood. We need developments that serve then, not displace them."

"Over 200 retail jobs in an environment when retail is under assault in many parts of the country," Queens Chamber of Commerce President Tom Grech added. "We support this project."

Developed by Sun Equity Partners, the 13-story building — three floors higher than what could be constructed as-of-right — would contain commercial space on the cellar level as well as the first two floors, totaling 60,000 square feet.

But in recent weeks, the developer has altered plans for the other 11 floors, where the 120 residential units will be located.

Under the former iteration of the plan, 36 dwellings would be deemed affordable housing at up to 80 percent of the area median income — $83,440 a year for a family of four.

But according to Nora Martins, the attorney representing Sun Equity Partners, the developer is now proposing a "deep affordability option."

In that plan, rent for 24 of the units will be affordable to those who make around 40 percent AMI — $41,720 a year for a family of four.

Six additional apartments will be designated affordable at 50 percent, 60 percent and 80 percent AMI, respectively — totaling 42 apartments

"We listened to everything everyone had to say, we took another look and I think we've come up with something that really reflects what the community needs," Martins testified at the meeting. "Forty percent AMI rents range from $524 for a studio to $925 for a three-bedroom."

In a letter submitted to Katz on Thursday, Councilman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights) said he helped broker that compromise with the developers, calling the new deal much better than the initial "threat to the neighborhood's culture" and "well-being of many of its working-class residents."

"This affordable housing plan is a historic achievement. However, my support remains contingent on the developers honoring that agreement," Moya said. "I believe the contours of this plan can provide a framework for future discussions around affordable housing and will be an example that the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing initiative is a place where conversations begin, not end."

The agreement did not go over well with a number of people in attendance at the land use hearing.

Jay Koo, one of the more than a dozen people to speak against the project, said he is scared the same act would play out in Jackson Heights as it did in his native Lower East Side, which has been significantly gentrified over the years.

"If we can get displaced here, we can get displaced anywhere," Koo said. "A community that organizes together, stays together."

He also tried to play to Katz's emotions, referencing her mother's death when she was just a toddler.

"I know that you were supported by a single father and small businesses were champions of your lifetime," Koo said. "When times were tough, mom-and-pop shops made sure your family was well-fed."

Others, however, used their time at the podium to slam — and even politically threaten — the borough president.

Arianna Martinez, an urban studies professor at LaGuardia Community College, openly wondered whether Katz's accepting of campaign donations from the Heskel Group — the real estate firm that co-owns the Jackson Heights plot — means the BP's decision has already been made.

"This vote clearly puts the interests of one rich campaign contributor against the survival of thousands of low-income and middle-class, hardworking people," Martinez said. "I want to know who you stand with. Will you prioritize a campaign donor?"

Queens Neighborhoods United volunteer Abigail Aviles added that if Katz moves to support the development, her electoral future will be in doubt.

"If you do vote yes, we will remember when you run for mayor because we know you have that in your plans," Aviles said. "The community will come for you and that's a promise."

Katz did not respond to either Martinez or Aviles.

A number of people testifying in favor of the 82nd Street plan showed up wearing purple 32BJ union shirts. The approximately half-dozen speakers from that group — many of whom only gave a first name — said the development of the building would mean dozens and possibly hundreds of good-paying construction and retail jobs.

A handful of others, who also only gave their first names, spoke to cleanliness issues in their apartment buildings, saying they would love to live in a new structure that did not have rodent or insect infestations.

Aviles, however, claimed those Jackson Heights residents who spoke in favor of the development were paid to do so and given scripts to read.

"A 32BJ member came up to me and asked me, 'Hey, are you part of the group? I don't know what's going on, I was given a script," she said.

Katz, who did not make her personal feelings on the project known, will render a decision — which is advisory in nature — in the coming weeks. The proposed rezoning will then head to the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

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