Thursday, July 3, 2008

Residents Frustrated Over Stalled Downzoning Effort

Members of a local civic group are ready to take to the streets and force action after waiting years for the city to downzone 350 blocks of Middle Village, Maspeth and Glendale.

During its monthly meeting at Our Lady of Hope auditorium in Middle Village last Thursday, the group’s president, Robert Holden, and other residents ripped into the Department of City Planning for dragging its feet on the effort, which is intended to protect the area characterized by one-and-two-family houses from out of scale development.

The effort started four years ago, when volunteers from Maspeth and Middle Village went door-to-door, surveying thousands of properties. This process was finished in October 2005, at which point Queens Director of City Planning John Young asked Holden to wait for city certification until Glendale volunteers completed that area’s survey. “He said it would speed things up,” said Holden. “Here we are, in the summer of 2008, and nothing has happened.”

The rezoning now includes a total of 350 blocks, including Maspeth south of the Long Island Expressway, Middle Village south of Juniper Park and parts of Glendale. Much of the resident’s frustration was directed at Joy Chen, who represented the Department of City Planning at the meeting.

“The mayor is not giving the department enough staff members,” said Holden. “There should be 20 Joy Chens in Queens… This man [Mayor Bloomberg] says to hold off because he is trying to create one million units he needs for his sanctuary city, and Middle Village is on his list. He said in ’04 that he supports the downzoning, but after he was reelected, he stalled the whole taskforce.”

Chen was unable to tell residents when the rezoning might finally receive city certification and be put in place. “Zoning is a very complicated issue,” she said. “We are aware of the over-development issues… Yes, it has been two years. Things always take longer than you wish… Planning is a long process and there are many steps.” Including three different neighborhoods in the study has complicated the process because “each has challenges and specific conditions unique to that area,” she said.

The next step, according to Chen, is for an environmental assessment to be completed, and for City Planning Chairwoman Amanda Burden to tour the area and sign off on the downzoning. She told residents she could provide a “better timeframe” in September. In the meantime, she invited residents to call her office at (718) 286-3170 to complain that the process is moving too slowly.

Civic Vice President Lorraine Sciulli asked Chen if the delay is due to inaction on the part of Burden. Said Chen, “I think that is one of the many bureaucratic processes that have to happen before the next step is taken.” In response, Sciulli said, “While she is delaying the walk, developers are raping every street.”

Michael Cohen, a former state assemblyman and current candidate to represent Rego Park and Forest Hills on City Council, questioned the need for an environmental assessment. “We’re talking about downzoning – making things smaller,” he pointed out. “The environmental impact is going to be less. It escapes me, if we’re doing less, why we’re delayed by an environmental study.”

Chen responded that the study is “required for all” re-zonings, and is less involved than a “full blown [environmental] impact statement. It sounds ominous, but it’s a very targeted environmental statement,” she said. “It’s standard for each and every one of our re-zonings.”

Holden wondered if this effort got “bumped” after “months and months of going door-to- door” while upzoning efforts in areas such as Jamaica were given top priority. “Your boss’s priority is to up-zone, not downzone,” he told Chen. “We’re the backbone of this city. If we move out, the city is going to be trash.” He noted that any projects begun before the new zoning is approved are grandfathered under the old laws. “Everyday, another construction fence goes up. The mayor has said ‘To hell with Queens.’”

Chen said that the city has determined that the downzoning is needed and that the process has been slowed in part because “there’s a lot of re-zonings going on” around the city. “We’re all in agreement that there is a strong consensus in this community for the downzoning,” she said. “We’re on the same page in terms of trying to protect this.”

However, Holden vowed to do “whatever it takes” to get the process moving forward, and suggested the residents will have to “take to the streets” in order to be heard. “We’ll block the streets, we’ll block their entrances,” he said. “We did all the work, and we were lied to. John Young said one thing, and we got another thing.”

In a statement, a DCP spokeswoman insisted that the Bloomberg administration’s “commitment to preserving neighborhood character is underway throughout Queens.” Since April, the department has begun public review on four re-zoning proposals totaling more than 580 blocks “to curb overdevelopment in the borough,” according to Jennifer Torres. She noted that the current proposal to rezone 350 blocks comes after the rezoning of parts of Middle Village and Glendale was approved in 2006.

“The current and larger 350 block phase two study of Middle Village, Maspeth and Glendale started in 2006 at the conclusion of earlier efforts and we are making expected progress with our block-by-block analysis to ensure a close match between our zoning recommendations and the built character.”

The department expects to “resume consensus building on this extensive rezoning in the fall, when the community board resumes it regular meeting schedule,” said Torres. “From there the department will need to finalize the proposal and environmental review.” She said that Burden “examines every rezoning area with careful scrutiny and thorough site visits.”

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