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Battle Over Innovation QNS Goes to City Hall

Councilmember Julie Won testifying at the Committee on Zoning and Franchises hearing Wednesday (Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit)

Oct. 20, 2022 By Christian Murray

The Innovation QNS development took center stage in City Hall Wednesday, with elected officials, business leaders and residents weighing in on the massive proposal during a public hearing held by the Committee on Zoning and Franchises.

Most of the arguments for and against the 2,800-unit mixed-use proposal—which would take up 5 blocks in the vicinity of Steinway Street and 35th Avenue—were not new.

Councilmember Julie Won said that the proposed development did not provide enough affordable housing and that the project in its current form would drive up rents in the neighborhood, forcing people in the area out of their homes.

The Innovation QNS development would go up on 5 blocks in the vicinity of Steinway Street and 35th Avenue

Meanwhile, supporters of the project, such as Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said that the developers have pledged to set aside 40 percent of the units—1,100 apartments—for affordable housing, an opportunity that should not be wasted.

The development would go up on land primarily used for warehouse space, big box stores and private parking lots.

“We are in the midst of a housing crisis in Queens, and I’ll be damned if we’re going to settle for parking lots and tow pound lots during a housing crisis,” Richards said during the hearing.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards testifying at the Committee on Zoning and Franchises hearing Wednesday (Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit)

Richards initially came out in opposition to the project but changed his mind when the developers—Silverstein Properties, BedRock Real Estate Partners and Kaufman Astoria Studios–pledged to increase the number of affordable units from 25 percent to 40 percent.

However, the 40 percent on offer is not enough for Won, who noted that the developers would not be financing all 1,100 of them—and that taxpayers would be on the hook for a portion of them. Furthermore, the 40 percent number is not guaranteed.

Currently, 25 percent of the affordable units would be financed by the developers, with the remaining 15 percent covered by taxpayers through city subsidies that have yet to be secured.

Jay Martin, a principal at BedRock, said during the hearing that they have yet to get a commitment from the city to fund a portion of the affordable units.

Won is calling on the developers to commit to setting aside 55 percent of the units as affordable, with 40 percent financed by the developers and 15 percent covered via public subsidies.

The rendering presented to Community Board 1’s Land Use & Zoning Committee on June 1 (Screenshot)

There were some tense moments between Won and Richards during the hearing.

Richards criticized Won for demanding that 55 percent of the units be affordable, saying that the two of them had agreed in private to negotiate for 40 percent affordability.

“I know you’re new here,” he said. “I support the councilwoman and her push in the community for more, but at the end of the day, the rubber has to meet the road.”

Won argued that the way to combat the shortage of affordable housing is to build more and that is what she is advocating for. She said the 40 percent number that Richards cited is a number that she believes the developers should be financing.

Many Astoria residents are in agreement with Won and spoke in opposition to the project during the hearing.

Advocates for the project tended to be labor union representatives, as well as local business and non-profit leaders.

The hearing was held after dueling rallies took place on the steps of City Hall Wednesday morning.

The rally in support of the project was held by two large labor unions–32BJ SEIU and Laborers Local 79—which was also attended by Richards and Bishop Mitchell Taylor, leader of the non-profit organization Urban Upbound.

Meanwhile, a rally in opposition to the project was led by Won, who was joined by public advocate Jumaane Williams, Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez and local groups.

The committee could vote on the Innovation QNS proposal as soon as next week. The proposal would then be followed by a vote by the full council before Nov. 21.

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