Opinion

Why I’m opposing the Phipps Houses development in Sunnyside

The proposed plan to develop a parcel of land on Barnett Avenue in Sunnyside has garnered a lot of attention recently  more than I ever sought  but the full reasoning behind objections to the plan haven't been aired.

As the local New York City Council member who cares deeply about rising rents, but who must also weigh concerns about overdevelopment, I will be responsive to the communities I represent. I have given this plan a thoughtful and reasoned assessment. I've met with the developer on multiple occasions and hosted a town hall meeting last fall to allow Phipps Houses to explain its proposal to the community. Additional town halls took place, but the project still has virtually no support in the community.

While it's easy to throw out charges of NIMBYism, the truth is there are valid reasons to oppose the Phipps project on Barnett Avenue.

Critically important to me is that Phipps Houses treats its existing tenants well. And while I'm not going to speak to their many other properties (which may be operated well), I know that the current tenants at the Phipps Garden Apartments, across the street from the proposed new building, tell me that Phipps isn't a good landlord. Lack of maintenance, long waits for repairs, and fights with the tenant leaders are serious issues. How can I approve Phipps adding several hundred more tenants when they have thousands of unhappy tenants right across the street?

The project is just too tall. Building affordable housing is important, but so is maintaining community scale and character. It is true that 10 stories is not a giant building in many parts of New York City, even parts of my district, but in this neighborhood of mostly one- and two-family homes, it is.

Phipps has also refused to work with organized labor. I was raised in a union household and many of my constituents are union members or retirees. Refusing to work with labor to build and staff the complex is wrong and unacceptable.

Affordable housing always begs the question "affordable for who?" This project calls for income levels at up to 130 percent of the area median income. That's above what many in the community today could afford. That's not good enough for the people who have spoken to me in opposition.

Each district and neighborhood is distinct – different needs and different challenges. And the local Council members are best positioned to make these kinds of land use calls because they know the issues and people involved.

Every project is not necessarily right for every neighborhood. My support for affordable housing, and my vote for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, was never intended to be a blank check for the de Blasio administration to build anywhere and everywhere.

In western Queens we have enormous growth and development pressures. And yet we have built affordable housing and will build more. Just last year we opened two new buildings, with 924 units of affordable housing, and plans are already approved to add thousands more. So don't tell me I'm okay with affordable housing as long as it's not in my district or backyard.

It also must be noted that the mayor has spoken of, advocated for and is currently studying the feasibility of adding close to 20,000 additional units of affordable housing in my district alone. That amount of development begs the question of how much is too much. Can the surrounding infrastructure support this residential boom? How will the already unreliable and jam-packed 7 train accommodate all these new people? My two school districts, 24 and 30, are two of the most overcrowded in the entire city today. Can we build enough new schools fast enough to accommodate everyone? Passions are running high right now, but all drama aside, these concerns are real.

And for the record, I've never feigned outrage over the mayor's comments. That's real. As is the reaction I'm hearing from folks not just in my district, but also all over the city, about the conflict. The mayor chose an unusual path here to be sure, a path I did not seek.

But when one of the most powerful men in the city, state, and maybe even the country calls me out, I'm going to respond, and forcefully. That's not just my right. I'd argue that it's my obligation.

I haven't sought to disparage the mayor or Phipps here. But it's fair to say that mistakes have been made, and for all the reasons cited in this piece and more, I can't support this project.

I look forward to speaking with Mayor Bill de Blasio about all of this, and maybe more importantly, about how we can move forward and work together for the people we both represent.

The ball is in his court.

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