Council Members questioned the developers on the project’s affordability and use of union labor. On October 20, 2014 the City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises held a public hearing on the proposed Astoria Cove development project. The project, which would create a new mixed-use development of 1,700 apartments, commercial space, a school, a supermarket, and parks, was approved by the City Planning Commission over opposition by both Queens Community Board 1 and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.
The hearing began with a statement by Council Member Costa Constantinides. The Council Member supported community development, but was concerned about Astoria Cove’s potential to end as “a castle with a moat around it”. The Council Member repeated opposition to the designed proposal, stating the proposal’s affordability numbers do not match area income levels. “The average income [in Astoria] is about $56,000 a year, or 74 percent of the AMI. Under the current zoning text, the developer has the option to devote only 10 percent of the units at 80 percent AMI, while the remaining 20 percent of affordable units can go up to 175 percent AMI. That’s the equivalent of paying $2,700 a month for a 1-bedroom.”
A presentation by the project’s lead architect Jay Valgora of Studio V followed. Mr. Valgora testified that the developers, led by Alma Realty, had worked with the community for four years in developing the project. The presentation included short video testimonials from NYCHA residents praising the planned co-op supermarket, shops, school, and other amenities. Project counsel Howard Weiss testified about the nature of the requested zoning actions. Mr. Weiss stated the project was a groundbreaking inclusionary housing proposal. “This project is trailblazing. It gives voice to the Mayor’s ten-year housing plan, and it gives voice to a lot of what’s been discussed…on economic opportunity and inclusiveness.” Debra-Ellen Glickstein testified for Alma, stating Astoria Houses is a designated Jobs-Plus site and Alma will work with the community to hire from the Astoria area. Ms. Glickstein also stated Alma’s commitment to explore alternatives to credit scores in evaluating affordable unit applicants, such as past history with rental payments.
Council Member Constantinides questioned the panel, focusing on transportation impacts of the project. The Council Member argued strongly for a transportation upgrade, describing overcrowding with area mass transit, and contending that problems will worsen with increased residential units. The Council Member asked if Alma objected to removing a provision in the zoning text allowing reduction of the 80-percent AMI affordable units to 10 percent of the total project in order to offer an extra 20 percent of the project at 165 percent of AMI. Constantinides stated, “You keep saying [you’re] not going to avail [yourselves] of that provision, but ‘cross your heart and hope to die’ is not good enough for me.” Mr. Weiss responded that the economics of building affordable housing without public subsidies required the amendment as written.
Other Council Members took issue with Alma on affordability and labor issues. Council Member Antonio Reynoso argued that Alma’s affordable housing position was not something out of the ordinary. “80-20, which is what you’re proposing to do, is something that comes from the old Book of [former Mayor Michael] Bloomberg. It’s something that we’ve thought has failed the communities, especially communities of color or low-income communities throughout the City of New York. It hasn’t worked.” Council Member Reynoso went on to call 80-20 “a joke” and “the old standard”, then held up the Domino factory residential development as a contrast, arguing 27 percent of the site’s total square footage is going to affordable housing with no public subsidy.
Council Member Elizabeth Crowley asked about Alma’s dialogue with unions, saying “By the time the Council considers these measures, the usual case is that developers already have a project-labor agreement in place.” The Council Member questioned how the Council could consider the proposal with no guarantee that either the construction or the jobs in Astoria Cove’s stores will be union. Developer John Mavroudis responded that the lack of agreement was not on Alma’s part, testifying that a signed letter of intent had been sent to the Trades Council, but not yet countersigned by the Council. Howard Weiss testified that negotiations were ongoing with the 32BJ service workers union. Council Member Crowley and Council Member Jumaane D. Williams pushed on whether or not Astoria Cove was effectively receiving a public subsidy through a fifteen- to twenty-five-year tax abatement, which Mr. Mavroudis denied. Council Member Williams went on to call the proposal “atrocious”, pointing out 80 percent of AMI for a family of four was $68,700 and many families in New York make far less. The Council Member acknowledged the good that developers do for the city in providing housing and tax revenue, but said “I don’t think you will [include people at lower percentage of AMI] without nudging from the Council and the City.”
A sub-issue to the hearing was Alma’s record on affordability elsewhere. Public Advocate Letitia James raised the issue of Alma’s attempt to take seven hundred units in the former Brooklyn Jewish Hospital in Crown Heights out of rent-regulation and onto the open market. Council Member Laurie Cumbo pointed out that Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan also calls for preserving existing affordable housing units, and questioned Alma’s sincerity in advancing that plan when they were deregulating the Brooklyn Jewish units. Mr. Weiss testified that Alma was one partner of a group developing Astoria Cove, and it would be incorrect to conflate Brooklyn Jewish with Astoria Cove. City Comptroller Scott Stringer, joined by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and State Assemblymember Walter Mosley, testified that while the two are separate, it would be “malfeasance” to not consider Alma’s actions in Crown Heights along with Astoria Cove. Said the Comptroller, “[Alma] is running a shell game across two boroughs, where they provide a little affordable housing with one hand and take away with another.”
After the hearing, Council Member Constantinides released a statement anticipating a vote on Astoria Cove to happen sometime in November. Shachar Sharon for the Council Member told CityLand that the Council Member would continue negotiating with the developers on “ample” affordable housing, jobs during and after construction, and expansion of public transportation until the final vote occurs.
City Council: Public Hearing, LU 0126-2014, LU 0127-2014, LU 0128-2014, LU 0129-2014, LU 0130-2014, LU 0131-2014 (Oct. 20, 2014).
By: Michael Twomey (Michael is the CityLaw fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2014.)