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Astoria Cove Sparks Divisive Opinions at City Planning

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Astoria Cove's turbulent journey from idea to reality continued Wednesday as the City Planning Commission held a public hearing on Alma Realty's proposed 1,723-unit development on the Queens waterfront. The 2.5-hour-long session was only a hearing; City Planning won't actually vote on the project until the end of September. While the objections were certainly louder, numerically speaking, there were only two more speakers listed as in opposition to the project (23) than those listed as in favor of it (21). Concerns about affordable housing, Walmart, transportation, Alma's track record, and contamination of the site dominated the hearing.

One of the biggest points of contention for those in opposition was the amount of affordable housing. The project will have 345 units of affordable housing (up from a previously proposed 295), but that wasn't enough for them. They want more than an 80/20 split. They want 50/50. One speaker even wanted the affordable units completed first, as he didn't believe they would ever become a reality. Moses Gates, of Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, was open to a compromise idea that might include units that are even more expensive than market rate if they would help to make it possible for units that could be affordable to those of even lower income.

Another issue that came up was the possibility that Walmart would come to the area. Several speakers, including Audrey Sasson of Walmart-Free NYC, spoke out against the idea, and even wants Mayor Bill de Blasio go on the record opposing the big-box retailer. She admitted that she hasn't heard of any talks with Walmart and that her testimony was purely preventative. In fact, Attorney Nora Martins of Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, speaking on Alma's behalf, said there had been no conversations with Walmart and added that the space for the planned fresh supermarket was only 13,000 square feet, less than you would see in a Walmart. Alma is looking for a local operator.

As the site is a former industrial area, many were concerned about environmental contamination, especially since the project includes a 456-seat elementary school. Some were worried about asbestos and others about PCBs. Norabelle Greenberger of Philip Habib & Associates responded to those concerns on Alma's behalf, saying that a Phase I environmental review had been completed and there were no open spill cases or enforcement activities in the area. Also on the subject of the school, one of the City Planning commissioners wondered if the school site could be used for some interim recreation while the rest of the project was being built. Attorney Howard Weiss of Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, speaking on Alma's behalf, said that wasn't feasible because the site would be used to stage other construction activities. Still, some people wanted the school to be built in the first phase of construction.

Several people complained about Alma's record. Some, including multiple residents of Alma's 1 Beach 105th Street property in Rockaway Park, complained of understaffed buildings, cracks in their terraces, elevators that constantly malfunction, and other issues. One iron worker complained of inadequate worker training and safety precautions and said the company had been cited for electrocution risk in Valley Stream, Long Island. Another said that Alma was fined $100,000 for fire code violations in East Newark, N.J. and that, three months later, there was a fire. Greenberger said that all of those allegations would be addressed to City Planning in writing.

Another concern of those in opposition of the project was that there wouldn't be enough local hiring and that those hired wouldn't be paid a living wage. There were multiple calls for a "restrictive covenant" to ensure local hiring and proper wages. Others worried about flooding (it is in hurricane zone 2) and hoped that any construction would be built not to today's standards, but to the tougher standards likely to be instituted in the future. One speaker worried that this development wouldn't be built for those in the neighborhood, but for outsiders. One speaker said it was a project that put "profits over people."

As previously reported, both Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Community Board 1 have not endorsed this project.

That's quite a lot of opposition, but there was a hearty amount of support as well. Weiss led those in speaking in favor of the project. He noted that there are no public subsidies for it and said he had 680 letters of support. Ken Smith, the project's landscape architect, noted that it will have 60 percent more open space that required, "infiltration gardens" to help with storm water, and that paving changes and planters would separate outdoor restaurant seating from other areas.

Greenberger said that the project would come with several transportation enhancements, including a shuttle bus from Astoria Cove to the 30th Avenue N/Q subway station (though only for those who work and live at Astoria Cove), an extension of 4th Street, and the creation of 27th Avenue. There was talk of the project coming with ferry service to Manhattan and Matthew Washington of New York Water Taxi said he hoped that would be part of the final plan. One of the commissioners noted that the area has rough waters, but Washington said they've taken their ferry boats through the area and it would be viable.

One of the commissioners asked how many jobs Astoria Cove would create, and while Greenberger couldn't give a total number, she said that there would be an average of 92 daily construction jobs with a peak of 152. She said that the project would create 400 permanent jobs.

Arthur Rosenfeld of the Long Island City / Astoria Chamber of Commerce said the project would "breathe life and positivity and prosperity" into the area. Another speaker said it was a "no brainer." One man said that, right now, the area "looks like hell" and that this project would fix that. "I'm begging you to approve this project," said another man who lives on the edge of the proposed development. If it wasn't approved, he said he would be "dumbfounded." Another said that the City Planning could approve the project or put a graveyard there.

The City Planning record will remain open for about a week to accept written testimony and further deliberations will likely continue at their open hearings. For more information, visit the CPC's website.
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· All Astoria Cove coverage [Curbed]