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Op-Ed: Astoria Not For Sale

Photo from the rally outside the developers town hall held in April. (Photo: Astoria Not For Sale)

May 25, 2022 Op-Ed

We are tenants, immigrants, activists, homeowners, formerly houseless, artists, parents, small business owners, community organizers, and more. And we say: Astoria is Not for Sale.

For too long, real estate has dominated the land use conversations and development of our communities, especially in working class neighborhoods being gentrified. Now, Astoria is facing the behemoth Innovation QNS project.

What exactly is Innovation QNS? It’s a massive 5-block rezoning with majority luxury housing (75%), the bare minimum of mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) at 25%, and most likely in the end, tax breaks for the billionaire Larry Silverstein’s Silverstein Properties, Kaufman Studios, and BedRock Real Estate Partners, who tout this area as underutilized. With 17 luxury buildings including several at 26 and 27 stories, it is completely out of scale with the surrounding community, marginalizes the immigrant and working class communities who live within and near the rezoning map, and illustrates the major flaws in our city planning processes.

According to the City’s own racial equity planning tool, it is smack dab in the middle of one of the most vulnerable areas of Astoria where approximately 25% live below the poverty line, and residents are at an intermediate to higher risk of displacement. When you dig deeper, those with the highest risk are immigrants, working class, and lower-income people of color whose earnings will not even allow them to qualify for most of the “affordable” units, let alone luxury rate studios at $3000+/month.

Our community is at a crossroads. For decades, every rezoning requested in Astoria by developers has been ultimately approved, expensive luxury housing has proliferated, and we’ve seen more and more of our most vulnerable neighbors get pushed out and displaced. While every Queens Assembly District saw their populations become or stay “majority minority”, Astoria saw the opposite in the last Census, and the driver has been gentrification.

Now everyone deserves a decent, safe, affordable, and welcoming place to live, no matter what their background. Each wave of arriving immigrants, families, workers, young people and professionals has joined the fabric of one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the City. Change is a natural part of this process. But Innovation QNS is not simply change; it is an all-out assault.

The term “underutilized” has often been used by big real estate to justify grossly inappropriate development and erase the communities that will be most impacted. It creates a dangerous narrative that for-profit developers are “saving” neighborhoods, but from Williamsburg to LIC, we see that they don’t provide what working class communities desperately need. The required meager “affordable” MIH housing is inaccessible to those who need it most, due to minimum income qualifications. Proposed community benefits are non-binding and there is no accountability.

It’s a myth that these luxury developments can solve our housing crisis and homelessness through supply and demand. Luxury apartments have higher rates of vacancy and have led to rising rents. Luxury developers used words like “vibrant” and “sustainable” when proposing their development, while ignoring the street vendor who currently parks their cart in a warehouse, the baked goods factory that supplies the local restaurants, or the immigrants who already call this neighborhood their home. They say the area is unwelcoming and use coded language to imply it’s unsafe. In this case, the developers themselves have helped create some of the very “underutilized” conditions they want to address, by holding properties off the rental market and forcing out existing businesses.

For years, Silverstein Properties, Kaufman Studios, and BedRock have been buying up and leasing properties in this corner of Astoria, which is surrounded by lower income, immigrant, and working class people and is a mix of industrial, manufacturing, rent stabilized and de facto affordable housing. In the process, they have stopped renewing commercial leases for many of the blue collar and small businesses there and admitted they have had no tangible plan to relocate them.

They have left properties vacant or filled them with studio equipment where there should be storefronts. The whispers of this rezoning have been heard for nearly a decade, and on nearby Steinway Street, where dozens of storefronts have been vacant since pre-pandemic, we’ve seen landlords forego leasing to mom and pops as they wait to see what rents they can command with a project like Innovation QNS down the pike.

They will create high-end retail space (and they won’t disclose projected starting rents); this space won’t be for the mom and pop entrepreneurs of Astoria. It will homogenize our community, and price out our halal butchers, our bodegas, our local coffee shops, and our immigrant-run restaurants.

There are many other problems with this development: open space is technically publicly accessible, but is mostly tucked away within the development; thousands of more cars on the road will threaten safety and air quality; non-profit leaders who don’t even live in Western Queens support it and receive donations, contracts, and potential space; no new schools; no detailed information in writing about breakdowns, actual rents and minimum earnings requirements for MIH unit eligibility; and more. The Environmental Impact Statement has identified at least six areas where there will be a significant negative effect on the community. The mitigation details are vague and hollow.

But ultimately, it comes down to people and displacement. It comes down to who is included in the conversations. It comes down to who has power.

Innovation QNS has spent enormous amounts of money on paid ads and marketing and has hired the biggest lobbying firm in the City, Kasirer. They have shelled out donations and promises of space to non-profit groups, including those on whose boards they serve or whose leaders they retain as consultants. They’ve penned op-eds and issued copious press releases to spin a narrative, but we are grounded in reality, not their whitewashed (and greenwashed) fantasy.

Their community outreach has been curated and controlled, and only when Council Member Julie Won criticized the lack of engagement of Bangladeshi, Spanish speaking, and working class communities in the area, did they hold a “Town Hall”—during Ramadan, Orthodox Easter week, and public school spring break. And after an overwhelmingly negative response at this Town Hall, the Innovation QNs developers went ahead and certified this project anyway: are they listening to the community? They’ve held focus groups with hand-selected participants but become incredulous when they are criticized publicly. Their website lacked Bangla and hastily inserting a google translate toggle for translation upon being called out provided laughable results. Except this is not a joke.

The local mosques, church communities, small businesses, and residents most affected by this proposal told us they were never contacted. It wasn’t until recently that the developers attempted to reach out to a few of the grassroots organizations in the area that fight for housing justice, food security, and immigrants’ rights for “feedback”. But we know this outreach is perfunctory. For nearly two years, opposition to this project has been growing and vocal.

This project must be voted down because it is wrong and not what we need. Negotiating will only get us crumbs, and the underlying flaws of this massive luxury development will remain in place and have a ripple effect across this entire area. We won’t sell out our communities and our electeds must not either, because Astoria is not for sale.

Signed,

Astoria Not for Sale
Astoria Tenant Union
Astoria Welfare Society
CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities
The Connected Chef/Lifeline Groceries
Hope Church Astoria
Justice for All Coalition
Western Queens Community Land Trust
Woodside on the Move
And over 1900 petition signers

email the author: [email protected]

24 Comments

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Halsey

What a load of crap. When honest, hard-working, non-criminals move somewhere it’s “gentrification”. When they leave because of high crime, high taxes and filth it’s called “white flight”. The left wing progressives have done such a great job in cities like Detroit, Baltimore, DC, San Francisco. That’s what happens when you run out of other people’s money.

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Michael Blandon

The people moving into Astoria recently will never know how great we had it back in the 60s 70s and 80s .They can laugh all they want but they will never realize how they are living in an empty shell of a once great community.Our memories WE own.RIP Astoria.

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Sharon Matt

Why is it these billionaire need to come in a community and build building that people in the community can’t afford. We that are low income can not afford the rent that is place on a studio, one bedroom, two bedroom let alone a three bedroom. They market the income to be at least $63,000 in one household. They DO NOT take Any type of program such as Section 8 or Vouchers. The rich only think about the rich and the right off taxes that they will receive. Build Affordable housing for those that are or have been in the community.

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Crawdad

This is all absurd NIMBYism. The land is mostly vacant, and the landowners want to build lots of new housing, create new businesses/jobs and create more open space. This is a huge win for the community, so of course the NIMBYs are complaining.

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M Macher

NIMBY is not the issue. The developers have been unresponsive to all requests for the specific breakdown of affordable units, have NOT shared the HANAC income threshold and did not share any DEIS info. The developers selling point of “Open space” has been flagged as an “Unavoidable adverse impact” in the DEIS filed for certification. The facts are being (literally) whitewashed. The income threshold for application will eliminate most area residents who are non-white from applying, as their incomes fall below the 60% AMI data in American Community Survey for the area shows AMI in the Black community is $29288, and Hispanic at $39103. Total population area per capita is $57,233. By the data this project is exclusionary, which is NOT the profile of this area. Also notable– 70% of current renters in the area are rent burdened, spending 30-50% of total income on housing. This is not affordable development, it is GENTRIFICATION.

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Dan

Anyone who uses “Nimby” or any other insult should be dismissed out of hand. If you can’t express your view without insulting people, you’re only invlidating your point with your poor character

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Sue

Affordable housing is a joke. The income requirements are not realistic for this area. It is not just immigrants or people of color who are being priced out there are many senior citizens who are in need of decent affordable housing as well as working homeless families. Elections are around the corner and we need to vote out our representatives who are not representing our neighborhood needs. Also stop trying to force out family run businesses.

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Anonymous

This project is mostly not even in Astoria. It is a dilapidated industrial area of LIC full of graffiti-covered warehouses. The only thing being displaced is blight. In Astoria it seems everyone is an amateur activist looking for a cause.

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Dan

Blight is not the only thing being replaceed.

Light is being displaced from residential zones due to the monstrosity of the size. It needs to be scaled down.

At some point we need to admit the meager subway access is only going to further strain capacity..as if the train could get worse…

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Sara Ross

Forest Hills is the same way. Blocks and blocks of small businesses have been torn down to make way for oversized, usually empty apartment buildings. Then with the dam bike lanes, they take away more parking spots to make way for the biking people to ride the streets that licensed drivers pay for!

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BoriquaGato

The developers will get what they want like they do every single time. This is accomplished with the approval and help of the Democrat elected officials that 92% of the Astoria population regularly votes for. You reap what you sow.

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Dan

So you’re admiting Democrats are capitalists and like making money as much as the Republicans do. How refreshing to hear. I guess we all have something in common after all. Thanks for pointing out you’re just like the majority.

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Anonymous

Progressives think they own Astoria and they can speak for all. All progressives want is to control everything and everyone around them. Stop harrassing everyone who sees things differently. Astoria lost its fabric when these progressive groups showed up. Now crime is rampant, streets are filthy and and taxes keep going up. These people have no stake in the neighborhood and completely ignore any long-time residents who are watching their neighborhood being destroyed.

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Greg

Any increase in housing supply should be welcomed, especially when there is mandatory affordable units as part of it. Astoria renters are delusional to think landlords won’t sell their buildings to developers for condo development. Gentrification doesn’t just occur because developers come in. Gentrification occurs because people are priced out of other areas and Astoria is the next price point. It has happened in countless Brooklyn neighborhoods without a single big developer building going up. So sure, argue that you want a higher percentage of affordable units. But the egregious behavior shown at townhalls isn’t the way. You can’t say “there is no engagement” but then complain a townhalls is during Ramadan which is literally a month long. Astoria residents should be welcoming the opportunity for more rent controlled units, because their rent is going to go up regards.

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Salvatore Coppola

My building was recently sold 2306 21st Street 60 family apartment building, as tenants move out they are not renting the apartments we have empty apartments on every floor in our building, what is they going to fix the apartments and sell them for condos and not pay anyone to leave just wait us out

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John Uske

I have lived in Astoria for the last 20 years not far from Broadway and Steinway Street. I have walked every block in this area and have become acquainted with many area residents. This project will destroy this community and the lives of the working class people that live here. I watched in the same period of time Long Island city get turned into a ghost town of high rise monoliths with not a soul on the streets. We do not need another ghost town of rich people who stayed trapped in their cubicles.

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Anonymous

LIC was literally a ghost town of warehouses before rezoning. People actually love here now.

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joe_the_accountant

Who is this going to displace? A couple of garages and parking lots in a derelict part of the neighborhood?
For those of us that are actually in that specific part of Astoria this will be an amazing addition for not only Astoria but for the entire city of New York.
Enough of this anti affordable housing NIMBY-ism, NYC will forever be changing no matter how loud a few special interest voices get.

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Jeremy

The phrase “Astoria is Not for Sale” is meaningless, it makes no sense. If this rezoning for blocked most of Astoria will remain for sale, but the price will go up! The tenants would would have lived on these blocks would instead be competing for other, existing housing for sale. I don’t know where these authors live, but anyone who walks around Astoria knows that expensive luxury housing has not proliferated. Talk a walk through Astoria, you’ll see barely 1 building out of 20 built in the last 80 years. That is the reality facing New York, an old and barely growing housing stock that has resulted in high rents for terrible apartments. This rezoning is one step towards a better future, with better housing, less competition for housing, and lower rents for everyone. These groups want to make it seem like the status quo in NYC involves a lot of development, but anyone who looks at the data will see that NYC builds less housing than almost any City in America. The anti-housing activists who wrote this op-ed want to preserve the terrible housing status quo in this City. We all live in housing that was built at some point, often in buildings that were built when zoning allow much more density than it does now (or zoning didn’t exist at all). People like to claim that this housing is somehow special, “luxury housing”, but it only appear to be a luxury because the rest of the housing options in the city are so bad! And the housing situation in this City will never get better without change, the housing situation won’t get better until we let more housing get built and it won’t get better until politicians learn to ignore anti-housing acitivists like the authors of this this op-ed.

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Transparency

@jeremy. Please identify your connections to this project, its backers, beneficiaries, and the developers. Thank you.

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Jeremy

My connection is that I am a renter and therefore I benefit when there are more rental housing options. Do you live in an apartment building? Then at some point that apartment was being built and if NIMBYs (like the authors of this op-ed) were around they might have blocked it. Then where would you be living now?

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jenny dubnau

This is ON POINT. Developers are trying to ram Innovation QNs through over the objections of huge numbers of community members, who know it will cause displacement and will destroy the diversity of this corner of Astoria. And now it looks like they simply “tacked on” MORE area to the rezoning, without transparency to the community board? We need to get to the bottom of this. Planning and development decisions should be made by actual planners and community members together, not by developers, who are after one thing: PROFIT.

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Jeremy

This project is going through a long, tortuous process and it’s fate will ultimately be decided by the Council and Mayor. The “community” will clearly have a voice. The developers are just begging to build some housing, which will benefit everyone and reduce rents.

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Anonymous

1900 people who maybe signed this petition is really a small number. That says a lot. Improvement is welcome.

Signed an Astorian

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