Last Thursday night, the City Planning Commission officially kicked off the public comment period for the rezoning application, led by plastic company Plaxall, at CUNY Law School. Dozens of community members filled the auditorium and provided testimony either in support or against the rezoning.
Among those who spoke were the leaders of Community Board 2, including its chair, Denise Keehan-Smith. She noted that although the scoping meeting was for Plaxall’s proposal for a special mixed-use district, city officials should take into account other nearby development projects, including the two towers on 44th Drive that will be built by T.F. Cornerstone.
“This kind of spot-zoning approach has great potential to be a recipe for disaster,” Keehan-Smith said, “and a lost opportunity for all of our constituents and stakeholders to make any waterfront improvement something we can all be proud of and enjoy the benefits of for years to come.
“It is difficult to determine the effect one project will have on the community without fully understanding the scope of the other projects under consideration and their effects on each other and the surrounding area,” she added. “Collectively, the projects would have significant impact on Long Island City, as well as western Queens, for generations to come.”
Of the nearly 40 testimonies presented before the hearing, most residents raised similar concerns, such as stress on existing infrastructure, lack of affordability and the sustainability questions when developing near the waterfront.
Like many of the residents who spoke, Lisa Deller, chair of Community Board 2’s Land Use Committee, praised the Plaxall family for their contributions over seven decades in Long Island City. They have supported artists, donated space for community groups, and helped drive growth in the neighborhood.
“However, while the family has been good neighbors, it’s critical that good neighbors don’t get a free pass when it comes to zoning,” Deller said.
She criticized the timing of the public scoping meeting and the two-week comment period, which will end on December 26. Noting that the period “opportunely coincides with the year-end holidays,” the end result is minimal community review, which is required for any private zoning application.
Community Board 2, nor its Land Use Committee, has had a chance to hold hearings on the rezoning. Deller asked the commission to extend the public comment period to March. Many residents agreed that would be “sufficient time” for Plaxall to present the details to the larger Long Island City community.
Plaxall unveiled its rezoning proposal last month. The plan, if passed, would create a special zoning district that would build residential, industrial and public developments over 15 years.
At the heart of the project is 4,995 units of housing. Abiding by the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program, 1,250 units, or 25 percent, would be affordable at 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI). That means a family of three making $51,540, or a family of four making $57,240, would qualify.
The district would combine residential towers with nearly 335,000 square feet for light industrial companies, and another 40,000 square feet for arts and cultural institutions. Plaxall would give one of its properties to the city to build a 700-seat public school, a much-needed development in a growing community.
Finally, the project would create a multi-level waterfront esplanade on the Anable Basin, capping off an additional 135,000 square feet of open space.
Plaxall owns 12.6 acres of the 14.7-acre site. The project is expected to create 2,200 permanent jobs and generate $450 million in economic output.
“It has the potential to be a special place in Long Island City,” said Matthew Quigley, a managing director at Plaxall, “and a unique attraction on the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront.”
He testified that Long Island City has become home to a community of makers and creatives, whose businesses will represent the future of the Long Island City community. But many of their buildings weren’t designed to support that type of job growth, he said, and much of Anable Basin remains inaccessible to the public.
“Our plan would bring the basin to life,” he said.
Supporters of the project include the Queens Chamber of Commerce, Long Island City Partnership, and community groups like Hour Children.
But community leaders and residents were not convinced. Deller said the tallest building in the Plaxall rezoning would be 695 feet, which would surpass the iconic Citigroup building as Queens’s highest skyscraper.
Throw in T.F. Cornerstone’s towers on 44th Drive with the proposed rezoning for the Paragon Paint site, and the result is a “massive upzoning of manufacturing and residential land,” Deller said.
“These actions will have a cumulative effect that is substantially more than the individual impact of each, which is already too much,” she said.
Deller said she’s also concerned by the seemingly lack of coordinated planning by the Department of City Planning, Economic Development Corporation and other government agencies. Rather than doing “spot zonings,” she said, the board wants the city to initiate a comprehensive community rezoning plan for the waterfront.
According to Deller, Plaxall has indicated that the family-owned business may transfer ownership of the sites to a for-profit developer. She expressed concerns that, like previous rezonings to the area in the last few decades, this project would lead to negative unintended consequences.
“The Plaxall rezoning action would indelibly change all prior efforts to preserve the context of the surrounding community,” she said.
Grace Chung, a local resident who spoke against the project, brought up the 2005 rezoning in Greenpoint and Williamsburg that led to a housing boom and massive displacement. By allowing rezonings that mix industrial and residential uses, developers built higher, resulting in an increase in land value by over 250 percent, she said.
“The Hispanic population was all but wiped out. Over eight million square feet of industrial space has closed down, not to mention the hundreds of galleries, music halls and theaters that have shut their doors,” Chung said. “It is a shameful irony that mixed-use rezoning has actually resulted in a more homogenous Williamsburg than ever before, filled with some of the most expensive high-rises in all of New York City.”
If the Plaxall family decides to sell the waterfront real estate, she warned, developers with “little or no ties to this community” may not have any concern for local residents or small businesses.
“Given the option between building luxury residential towers or affordable community space, we can be sure that the typical developer will always choose the path of greater profit,” she said. “In 2017, we don’t have to imagine what will happen if a Williamsburg-like rezoning is passed in our community. We can see it for our own eyes.”
Danielle Luscombe, a 13-year resident of Long Island City, said the infrastructure of the neighborhood can’t even accommodate another 1,000 residents, let alone 10,000 people.
“I’m sick of the empty promises made by developers,” she said. “I want to see the promises fulfilled before rezoning happens.”
Echoing the calls of many people who spoke at the hearing, Sheila Lewandowski, a member of Community Board 2 and co-founder of The Chocolate Factory, asked for an extension of the public comment period so more neighbors can get involved in the process.
“It comes across as a lack of transparency,” she said, “and a lack of desire to communicate with the community.”
In a statement, a Plaxall spokesman said the Anable Basin has been largely inaccessible to the public for 150 years.
“Our entire plan revolves around opening up the basin to the public via a new bi-level public esplanade that wraps around it, and six public pedestrian lanes that will provide connections to the basin from the north, south and east,” he said. “Connectivity and public access really lie at the heart of our plan for a cohesive district.”