Aug. 5, 2022 By Christian Murray
The massive Innovation QNS project was rejected by Queens Borough President Thursday who said that the sheer scale of the 2,800-unit proposed development outweighed the benefits that may come from it.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards’ rejection of the proposal represents another blow for the developers of Innovation QNS, who seek to rezone a 5-block area in the vicinity of Steinway Street and 35th Avenue. In June the development was rejected by Community Board 1 by a 24-8 vote.
The developers’ overarching plan involves creating a mixed-use district between 37th Street and Northern Boulevard, bound by 35th and 36th Avenues, which would consist of more than a dozen buildings that would range in height from eight to 27 stories—as well as two acres of green space and space for nonprofits.
The developers—consisting of Silverstein Properties, Kaufman Astoria Studios and BedRock Real Estate Partners– would include 711 affordable units for people who make an average of 60 percent Area Median Income ($80,000 for a family of four), representing 25 percent of the units in the development.
“The applicant has presented many positives… that, on their own, would be exceptional,” Richards wrote, referring to the affordable housing, open space and the 100,000 square feet of community facility space that would be available for local nonprofits.
However, Richards said the positives were outweighed by the 2,100 market-rate units and 20-plus story towers that would alter the fabric of the neighborhood.
Richards said that the development would “drastically” change the character of the district since it would lead to an influx of high-income tenants– thereby altering the demographics and potentially pricing out current residents.
Richards said that local residents and the community made it clear that the “project feels out of character with the surrounding area” and that the amount of affordable housing was not enough.
The borough president pointed to the development team’s Racial Equity Report, where it was estimated that the rents on the non-income restricted units would be from $2,430 on the low end to $5,190 on the high end. He said that the median gross rent in the community board district is $1,686
The borough president did put forward some suggestions that he said would make the plan more plausible. These included allocating 50 percent of the units for affordable housing as well as offering more units to individuals or families earning 30 percent AMI ($40,000 for a family of four).
Richards said the developers “presented a possibility of expanding the lowest AMI level to 30 percent” and stated that they would continue conversations regarding additional affordable units. No firm numbers were disclosed.
He said that the heights of the buildings need to be lowered. The borough president said the scale needed to be reduced most along 35th Avenue and midblock along 38th Street, across the street from Playground XXXV on Steinway Street.
The borough president and Community Board’s rejections are advisory but are likely to have a significant impact on whether the project is approved.
The plan will now go before the City Planning Commission, which will have 60 days to vote on it. While the CPC vote is binding, it is unlikely to reject the application outright.
The decision will ultimately come down to a vote in city council—and local councilmember Julie Won will likely to determine its fate, since the council typically votes in accordance with the wishes of the local representative.
She has shown very little enthusiasm for the project and has even praised the critics of the project who played a role in Community Board 1 rejecting the proposal.
Won released a statement Friday following Richards’ “no” vote. She said that the “developers failed to meet the community’s call for deep affordability.”
Won said that most residents in the district would not be able afford the market rate units. “The majority of residents in the area cannot afford to pay $2,430 to $5,190 in rent,” she said.
“Securing more affordable housing for this district is my top priority, and we will use the borough president’s recommendations and our own land use guidelines we released earlier this week to meet that goal.”
Her guidelines call on developers to offer deeply affordable units, combat displacement and invest in public infrastructure, among many other requirements.
The developers said they were disappointed by Richards’ rejection but plan to work with Won.
“The Innovation QNS development team is disappointed that despite significant progress in addressing the Borough President’s concerns – including agreeing to a substantial increase in the number of affordable homes and to deliver a meaningful number of those homes at the deeply affordable “extremely low-income” band – we were unable to win his support in advance of his recommendation.”
“We’re proud of the plan for Innovation QNS – a $2 billion investment in creating affordable homes; family-sustaining jobs; open space; support for small businesses, working families and immigrant communities; and hundreds of millions of dollars in public revenue all at a time when it is needed most – and look forward to refining the plan further in collaboration with Council Member Won to ensure it addresses her concerns.”