Nov. 21, 2022 By Christian Murray
It didn’t come easy.
After lengthy negotiations, the developers of the massive Innovation QNS project have been given the blessing of Councilmember Julie Won to go ahead with their massive 5-block, $2 billion project slated for Astoria.
Won said that she has struck an agreement with the developers who have pledged to build significantly more affordable housing than what was initially proposed.
The developers have agreed to build 1,436 of the approximately 3,200 proposed units as affordable—about 300 more than the 1,100 that had been promised earlier this month, and more than double the original plan of 711.
“From Day 1, I have stood with my community in demanding deeper affordability from this development–and because we held the line, the Innovation QNS project has doubled the number of affordable units than initially offered, from 711 to 1,436 affordable units,” Won said.
Won’s announcement comes on the same day that the council’s Land Use Committee unanimously approved the rezoning proposal (11-0), which will bring 12 buildings spread across 5 blocks in the vicinity of Steinway Street and 35th Avenue. The plan will now go before the full city council for a vote, and upon its almost certain approval, the rezoning will go into effect.
Several of the buildings in the proposed development will be approximately 25 stories high and will contain office space and community facilities. The project will also bring more than 2 acres of green space to the area, which is currently home to warehouses and parking lots.
The plan until last week made provision for 2,800 housing units but the number was increased to 3,190 to make way for the additional affordable housing units. The developers have reduced the amount of office space and parking spots to add the housing units.
A significant number of the affordable housing units will be for residents with very low incomes. Won said that 658 units will be set aside for people who earn up to 30 percent Area Median Income, or $36,030 for a family of three. Of the 658 units, 157 will be for the formerly homeless.
Won said that the developers have agreed to contribute $2 million toward a fund that would help area residents in danger of displacement. The funds would be used to cover the cost of legal representation for tenants who are harassed by landlords, as well as to help those who have to relocate from the immediate project area.
Through hard-fought negotiations, we secured unprecedented levels of affordability on Innovation QNS, on PRIVATE land. Thanks to the coalition and community organizers, here is what we achieved together 🧵:
— Council Member Julie Won (@CMJulieWon) November 21, 2022
The agreement was reached after the developers—Silverstein Properties, BedRock and Kaufman Astoria Studios—came under heavy criticism from Won, who said that they didn’t do enough community outreach and didn’t offer enough “truly affordable housing.”
The developers initially proposed 711 affordable housing units—or 25 percent of the total units– the minimum required under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program. The MIH program is triggered whenever a residential rezoning is sought.
Won said that the agreement she struck has set a precedent, and that the MIH requirement set by the city is not enough.
“Mandatory Inclusionary Housing…is not only inequitable housing policy, but also inadequate to tackle our worsening affordable housing crisis,” Won said.
Won had called on the developers to set aside 55 percent of the units for affordable housing. The deal she struck equates to about 45 percent.
The councilwoman said that she could have got the 55 percent, but the units would not have been offered at the same level of affordability—such as 30 percent Area Median Income– that she believes residents need. The units, she said, would have still been affordable but would have been for those with much higher income levels.
Won said that she was also able to get the developers to build larger affordable apartments. She said that the number of family-sized affordable units is now much greater than what was proposed—with 554 two- or three-bedroom units, up from 284.
The councilwoman won praise from some of her colleagues as well as elected leaders in the area.
“The newly revised project negotiated by Council Member Won and approved by our Land Use Committee is an unprecedented step to expand affordability,” said Council Speaker Adrienne Adams in a statement. “I applaud Councilmember Won for advancing affordable housing solutions and public benefits that will benefit her district and all New Yorkers.”
Won was praised by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her negotiations.
“This historic level of affordability, substantial public subsidy and millions in funding for community and public housing infrastructure are welcomed investments…We thank all involved—from the Astoria is Not for Sale Coalition and Councilmember Won—to supportive elected officials.”
Won said that the community fared well given that the development is on private land.
“This is not public land where you might get 100 percent or 75 percent affordable housing,” Won said. “We got pretty close to 50-50 which is pretty good—although I tried to get more.”
Won said that she was grateful that she had the backing of the community during the negotiations. She said that she had a united front behind her—from western Queens elected leaders to community groups—that could not be ignored.
“If they didn’t show up in the numbers that they did, if they didn’t speak out, if they didn’t organize, this would have been like any other project that you see go through in our city. It would have been 25 percent affordable [housing] or maybe 30 percent. That’s the norm for private land. We did much better.”
I wonder how much money was in that envelope for her to be allowed to make that decision. Was it a verbal agreement? Was it done in writing, legally?