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A polluted Queens waterway braces for major transformation

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A new mixed-use project could reshape the Flushing River waterfront, but concerns over its environmental impacts remain

Flushing Creek near the Northern Boulevard bridge.

Along the banks of the Flushing Creek—one of New York’s most vital and most polluted waterways—dozens of construction cranes loom over the landscape, and half-finished glass towers cast ominous shadows over the water. During heavy rain storms, the waterway regularly swells, flooding pathways in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the streets of Willets Point, and even portions of the Van Wyck Expressway. And after those storms, the city’s overtaxed sewer system often pours raw sewage into the creek and Flushing Bay, causing a stench to waft from its brackish waters. Dead fish occasionally float upon its surface.

But this chunk of Queens real estate has been targeted for development by a consortium of landowners and stakeholders, including a group called the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation (FWPCLDC) that has long pushed for revamping the waterfront. Last December, the group quietly submitted plans to redevelop a 29-acre stretch of industrial property along the waterfront, which would include rezoning the northernmost section from manufacturing to residential use.

The proposal calls for creating a Special Flushing Waterfront District, which could accommodate a huge mixed-use development with more than 1,700 apartments, retail, a hotel, and publicly accessible open space (including a riverfront promenade that would connect to the recently opened Skyview Flushing Creek Promenade). Developers also want to integrate a publicly accessible road network with the existing street grid, effectively expanding downtown Flushing. The portion of land that would be rezoned could eventually be home to just under 100 below-market-rate apartments.

While proponents say the development will benefit the community, critics are concerned that development will have “immense impacts” on the fragile condition of the Flushing waterfront. “Adding significant residential development could overwhelm the Creek’s overburdened infrastructure that already releases over one billion gallons of raw sewage and stormwater runoff into the Creek every year,” the Guardians of Flushing Bay, a group of environmental activists, said in a statement. “Though the plan aims to provide critical access to a virtually inaccessible swath of the waterfront, it is essential that this project, if enacted, be implemented in a way that would enhance coastal resiliency, recreation opportunities, ecological stewardship and equitable access to the waterfront.”

The proposal comes as downtown Flushing experiences a development boom: Between 2009 and 2019, the neighborhood saw the second-largest number of condos constructed in New York City after Williamsburg, Brooklyn, according to Nancy Packes Data Services, a real estate consultancy and database provider. Over the past five years, rents have climbed by a whopping 21 percent. Although historically home to a largely working- and middle-class Chinese immigrant population, many of Flushing’s new developments—such as the massive The Grand at Skyview Parc, which has two-bedrooms selling for around $1.27 million—cater to a new wave of immigrants with deep pockets.

With Flushing booming, the waterfront remains the last frontier for developers. But given the size of the proposal from the FWPCLDC, as well as the fact that the Special Flushing Waterfront District is situated in a coastal flood hazard area, critics have argued that an environmental impact study—which is not required for this particular project—must be conducted before the plan moves forward.

“They’re adding three million square feet along the waterfront,” says Tarry Hum, chair of the Queens College Department of Urban Studies. “Can you imagine the environmental impact?”

There was once a time when the two-mile Flushing Creek was a pristine waterway. It was once home to tribes of Algonquin Native Americans, who first settled Long Island as late as 1500, and was then colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century. At the time, the river was teeming with wildlife and provided an ideal location for land cultivation, trade, and food for those communities.

But by the early 20th century, the river had been transformed into a dumping ground famously chronicled by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby as a “city of ash.” During the construction of 1939 World’s Fair, Robert Moses ordered the excavation of parts of the waterway to create Meadow and Willow Lake in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and much of what remained was diverted into underground culverts. When it came time to design the 1964 World’s Fair, Moses called for filling in the creek’s middle section to create additional parkland at Flushing Meadows. Much of what was left was reduced to a canal beneath the Van Wyck Expressway, narrowing into a system of pipes used to supply several fountains for the fair. By the 1970s, what remained of the river was inundated with toxic sludge as a result of years of illegal industrial dumping.

Plans to redevelop the riverfront date back to the 1990s, when the city first proposed rezoning the area as a way to accommodate Flushing’s growing population and “pent-up demand for commercial and residential space,” according to a New York Times piece at the time. But development wasn’t really put into motion until 2010, when FWPCLDC was awarded a $1,505,700 grant under the New York State Brownfield Opportunity Areas Program to craft a plan for the waterfront. Even then, it took until 2016 for the city to initiate a comprehensive rezoning plan, called Flushing West, which built upon the proposal put forth by the FWPCLDC.

Flushing River and the Van Wyck Expressway in 2014.
Nathan Kensinger

But the 2016 rezoning ultimately failed: After sustained community opposition, along with City Council member Peter Koo’s opposition, the city backed off. “With so many infrastructure and planning needs, it has become clear that a rezoning of Flushing West would be a classic example of stuffing 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound bag,” Koo wrote in a letter to NYC’s Department of City Planning. “We simply can’t afford to further overburden our community without first addressing serious sustainability and capacity concerns.”

Still, the Flushing developers pressed on: In 2018, the FWPCLDC was awarded a second grant of $1.5 million from the BOA, which evolved into the current proposal. The group says that the landowners—F&T Group, United Construction & Development Group, and Young Nian Group LLC—can already build much of the proposed mixed-use project as-of-right; rezoning a section of the land will simply allow developers to build more housing (some of which will be affordable) on the portion of the land that is currently dedicated for manufacturing use. But if the rezoning isn’t approved the group says it will move forward without affordable housing, integrated road networks, and public access to the creek.

Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t sit well with critics of the proposal, who say the current plan is merely a repackaging of the city’s failed 2016 Flushing West rezoning, but led by private developers. “We should be looking at how this went from a public rezoning to a private rezoning,” says Hum.

“I have some serious reservations about the whole process and the way it’s been framed as a private rezoning,” says Assemblymember Ron Kim, who represents the area. “The way thee developers came forward, framing it as an ‘as-of-right rezoning’—there is no such thing. If it’s as of right they didn’t need to go through the rezoning process. Our community is in desperate need for affordable housing, new schools, more libraries, and more community social spaces, not more luxury condos going up.”

“What they should have done in the first place, instead of trying to con the community, was present a comprehensive impact study of what they are proposing,” Kim continues. “What is the environmental [and] racial impact of what they are trying to do to our community?”

DCP says that as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process moves forward, the agency will be responsive to the community’s concerns. “The local community has long advocated for a cleaned-up and accessible waterfront, and affordable housing in this area,” says Joe Marvilli, a DCP spokesperson. “That advocacy is reflected in two important community engagement studies—one related to long-standing brownfields—conducted by DCP, and those community values will be weighed as this private application moves through public review.”

The final say on the project will ultimately lie with City Council member Peter Koo, who declined to state a firm position but listed some concerns with the current proposal. “We have a lot of questions about environmental impacts and potential for community investments,” says Scott Siber, a spokesperson for the councilmember. “Under the existing conditions, the developers can basically build at least three more Skyviews without any public approval. That would allow for huge foundations to wall off the streets with towers on top and no neighborhood connectivity. At minimum, the Special Waterfront design would need to guarantee public waterfront access, open space, and greater neighborhood connectivity via a street network.”

Activists are quick to point out that they are not opposed to development in the area, but are opposed to development that fails to prioritize the needs of the community. Despite their many overtures to have a seat at the table, community members feel that they’re being shut out. “We want more input so that the project really reflects the needs of the community,” says Seonae Byeon, housing organizer for MinKwon Center for Community Action. “With this rezoning, they are fast-tracking the project, and it feels disingenuous to the community who have been working on this issue. It seems like they don’t want us to be part of the conversation.”

Opponents point to the massive Flushing Commons development, currently under construction on a former city-owned parking lot, as reflective of their concerns. In 2010, the city approved a rezoning that led to the creation of the megaproject. It has several condo buildings and 1,600 parking spaces, but affordable housing was not a priority for the developers. In exchange for selling its air rights, the neighboring Macedonia AME Church constructed a 14-story affordable housing development called Macedonia Plaza, with just 140 affordable apartments.

“Every time they develop something in Flushing they always promise affordable housing, but we have been betrayed by their promises,” says Byeon. “People want affordable housing, senior housing, and youth centers in downtown Flushing. Having million dollar condos doesn’t serve the common good.”