City Council to Hold Hearings on Controversial Astoria Cove Proposal

The City Council will hold hearings on the controversial proposed Astoria Cove development project. Image Credit: Studio V

Architect rendering of the proposed Astoria Cove development project. Image Credit: Studio V

The project was approved by City Planning despite opposition from the Community Board, Borough President, and the local Council Member. On October 20, 2014 the City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will hold hearings on the proposed Astoria Cove mixed-use development project. The project, designed by Alma Realty, is the first project subject to Mayor de Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary zoning housing requirement. Despite the requirement, the project has faced opposition from community groups and elected leaders arguing the designated affordable units are too expensive for current Astoria residents.

The proposed Astoria Cove development would consist of five mixed-use buildings on the Hallets Point peninsula of Queens, bounded by 4th Street to the west, 9th Street to the east, 27th Avenue to the south, and the East River to the north. The project would feature 1,700 apartments, 54,000 square feet of commercial space including a FRESH program-qualified supermarket, 60,500 square feet for a new pre-K through 5th grade public school, and 55,600 square feet for a public waterfront esplanade and public access area.

On June 17, 2014, Queens Community Board 1 voted 44-0 to recommend disapproval of the project. In their comments, the Board expressed concern the original plan only reserved seventeen percent of the units for affordable housing, and called for the project to reserve thirty-five percent instead. The Board also commented on the project’s traffic impact, opposing Alma’s plan for shuttle buses to area subways just for new residents, and called for new modes of transportation. “With more than 4,000 new apartments…during the next decade with approximately 8,900 new residents, other alternative modes of transportation such as ferry services must be put into operation in the early stages of…development.”

On July 30, 2014, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz also recommended disapproval. In her comments the Borough President echoed CB1’s limited affordability concerns and seconded the Board’s call for thirty-five percent affordability. The borough president also joined the Board’s mass transit concerns, saying area service is overburdened, and called for ferry service between Astoria Cove and Manhattan. The Borough President also objected to Alma’s plan to build the school in the project’s last phase, arguing for construction at the beginning. “The most recent analysis shows [district schools] are operating above capacity while…others are operating at high occupancy rates. The school should be built sooner to proactively assure that there are enough seats to meet current and future needs.”

On August 6, 2014, the City Planning Commission held a public hearing on the project, modified following the Community Board and Borough President’s comments. Ron Mandel, representing the applicant, testified the project’s affordable units had been increased to twenty percent, for a total of 345 units. Mr. Mandel also testified that under the terms of the zoning text amendment, the Commission may require Astoria Cove to increase the amount of affordable units if the development avails itself of public subsidies. Howard Weiss, representing the applicant, testified that construction of the proposed school would continue to begin in the final phase, saying “We have worked closely with the School Construction Authority and the Department of City Planning to determine the project’s phasing and anticipated demand for school seats.” Norabelle Greenberger, an environmental analyst for the applicant, testified on Astoria Cove’s transportation impact. Ms. Greenberger stated after coordinating with City Planning and other agencies, the street grid around Astoria Cove would be expanded to include three new street segments, two eastbound and one northbound. “Combined, these improvements will serve to divert eastbound traffic from 27th Avenue to these new roadways.” Ms. Greenberger also testified the shuttle bus service to the 30th Avenue subway station would remain provided for Astoria Cove residents only, and not as mitigation of overall traffic congestion.

Testifying in opposition were representatives from community groups and organized labor. Moses Gates for the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development opposed the modification of affordable housing requirements as written. Mr. Gates testified the low-, moderate-, and middle-income options were inconsistent with community incomes and market-rate rents. “’Middle-income’ [as defined in the project] right now can range up to $3,500 for a two-bedroom apartment while…the very top of the two-bedroom market [in western Astoria] looks about $2,200-2,400.” Mr. Gates stated an appropriate range for these options would be 30 – 80 percent of Area Median Income, not the current 80 – 165 percent. Charlene Obernauer of New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health called for “targeted oversight” of Alma Realty based on their record of endangering workers. “In June 2013, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration assessed initial penalties totaling $465,410 against Alma and its subcontractors for willful, serious, and repeat workplace safety violations.” Ms. Obernauer also testified that Alma’s two high-rise properties in Queens have a history of over three hundred complaints and violations from the Department of Buildings and the Environmental Control Board.

On September 29, 2014, the Commission voted 10-1 with two abstentions to approve the Astoria Cove development project.   In the final report, the Commission noted the Economic Development Corporation was planning to explore the feasibility of ferry landing locations along Hallets Point, but the request for ferry service was outside of ULURP’s scope and was not considered. The report also states the Commission modified the application to require a minimum of ten percent of the Astoria Cove units always be low-income affordable while other income tiers are present. At the vote, Chairman Carl Weisbrod said Astoria Cove was an “important milestone” in transforming the underutilized site. “This project represents an important step towards the mandatory inclusionary housing program that the Department [of City Planning] is now developing.”

After the City Planning vote, Council Member Costa Constantinides, who represents Astoria, announced he could not support the Astoria Cove project as written. In a statement given to CityLand, the Council Member praised the potential of the development “if built to the highest standards” and recognized the need for new housing, but criticized the planned affordable units as too expensive for current Astoria residents, saying “Astoria Cove must work for all Astorians.” The Council Member said he would continue to work with the developer on “providing ample affordable housing, dramatically increasing public transportation capacity on and off of the peninsula, and keeping the development within the fabric of the community.” Shachar Sharon from Council Member Constantinides’s office told CityLand that the Council Member has held concerns about the project’s affordability from the beginning, but due to ongoing negotiations, could not give a specific percentage of affordable housing the Council Member is seeking.

CPC: Astoria Cove Development (140323A-ZSQ, 140329A-ZRQ, 140325-ZAQ, 140324A-ZSQ, 140322-ZMQ, 130384-MMQ) (Sep. 29, 2014).

By: Michael Twomey (Michael is a CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2014.)

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