For Flushing and Its Waterfront, Time to Think Big
The bustling Main Street subway stop in Flushing, Queens.
By JONATHAN VATNER
April 12, 2011
The 800,000-square-foot Sky View Center has big-box stores and is 75 percent leased.
Flushing, Queens, home to one of the largest Asian populations in the United States, is one of the most crowded downtown areas in New York City. The Flushing Main Street stop on the No. 7 subway line was the busiest station outside of Manhattan in 2009, and 19 city bus lines stop downtown, where more than 40,000 people reside.
Yet there has been relatively little large-scale development in the neighborhood. The glassy towers that dominate other parts of the city are conspicuously absent — and a municipal parking lot takes up five acres in the center of downtown.
“People come from China, and when they look at Flushing, they say, ‘This is the way China was 15 years ago,’ ” said Michael Meyer, the president of TDC Development, a subsidiary of the F&T Group, which plans to turn that parking lot into Flushing Commons, an $820 million, 1.8 million-square-foot mixed-use development. Mr. Meyer said he hoped to break ground within a year, and he estimated that construction would take three and a half years. It is one of several major developments that promise to refashion the neighborhood’s landscape.
“On every street and every block, there’s new construction,” said Dian Yu, the executive director of the Flushing Business Improvement District. “It’s amazing.”
Flushing Commons is to include 235,000 square feet of small-scale retail, 185,000 square feet of office space, about 600 condos, a 62,000-square-foot Y.M.C.A., a one-and-a-half-acre park and, to make up for the lost parking lot, 1,600 underground parking spaces. The project is a joint venture with the Rockefeller Group Development Corporation, which built Rockefeller Center.
Nearby, the F&T Group is also building a $125 million mixed-use development that will combine a 168-room Hyatt Place hotel with three levels of retail, underground parking and a separate tower for office space and serviced apartments. Groundbreaking is this week; construction should take three years.
A few blocks away, where Main Street ends at Northern Boulevard, the RKO Keith’s Theater, designed by Thomas W. Lamb, may finally be given new life. The theater housed vaudeville acts and movies for more than half a century but has been sitting empty since the 1980s, despite the efforts of various developers.
“It’s been a cancer in downtown Flushing for over 20 years,” said Claire Shulman, the former borough president who is now chief executive of the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation.
Last year a developer, Patrick Thompson, acquired the theater by assuming a $20 million loan from Doral Bank; he plans to restore the landmarked lobby while building a $160 million mixed-use development that will include 357 rental apartments, 17,460 square feet of retail, a senior center and parking. The project, Mr. Thompson’s largest, has received almost all of the necessary approvals and is on track for construction to begin this year, with an opening expected in 2014.
Mr. Thompson said there was a strong rental market in Flushing. “There are rental buildings in Flushing, but they’re mostly older and rent-stabilized,” he said. “A lot of the Asian population, when they want an upscale rental, have gone to Long Island City.”
Set back from the sidewalk, the apartment tower will reach 17 stories — 175 feet — making it higher than anything nearby. The historic lobby will be visible to passers-by through an undulating glass curtain.
“We want to create a new building that’s reflective of the old,” said Jay Valgora, the principal of Studio V architecture, who designed the project. “The lobby will be on stage for all time, overlooking the community.”
Promising changes are on the horizon for the Flushing waterfront as well. College Point Boulevard, which runs along the inlet of Flushing Bay, is a busy roadway that is dangerous to pedestrians and populated by construction suppliers, auto-body shops, and a large U-Haul rental and storage operation.
“It’s not a traditional urban waterfront,” said Mr. Valgora, whom the Flushing Willets Point Corona development corporation hired to draw the plans for its transformation. “A block away you have a vibrant commercial center. They’re completely cut off from their waterfront with a chain-link fence.”
The first step of the plan, which recently began, includes pedestrian medians as well as trees and planters to beautify College Point Boulevard and make it safer, a process that should wrap up by the end of the year.
“We are turning it into a boulevard, rather than a heavily trafficked commercial street,” Mrs. Shulman said. “I think that will make a big difference in the appearance of the whole area, which is messy now.”
The development corporation is also working to change the zoning to C4-4 from C4-2, which would call for smaller building footprints and require less parking, thereby allowing for more open space along the waterfront.
These are just the first steps. Mr. Valgora foresees 1,800 to 2,800 residences, a waterfront esplanade and boardwalk lined with cafes and restaurants, and a series of parks.
“We really see it as a vibrant mixture,” he said. “It will resemble Singapore.”
Already the waterfront has one major new tenant — perhaps the most salient evidence of Flushing’s transformation up to now — on a site that Muss Development Company has owned for more than two decades. Sky View Center, an 800,000-square-foot mall a few blocks west of the Main Street station, is now 75 percent leased, and has big-box stores like Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, BJ’s Wholesale Club and Best Buy.
“Queens in general is dramatically under-retailed,” said Michael Dana, the president of Onex Real Estate Partners, which is heading development on the Sky View project. Yet, Mr. Dana added, “the local economy in Flushing is very strong.”
The demand for luxury condos has not proved quite as strong. Sky View Parc, the attached condominium towers with 448 units open and 660 planned for a second phase, is still mostly empty — only 170 units have sold — but Mr. Dana is confident that sales will improve when construction is complete this spring. “I’m not the least bit disappointed,” he said. “We’re seeing a tremendous pickup in sales.”
And the area is still in desperate need of affordable housing, Mrs. Shulman said. She is working on a plan to convert a municipal parking lot by the Long Island Rail Road station into housing, and at the same time improve access to the train platforms, which are difficult to find and not accessible to wheelchairs.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has set aside $8.5 million for wheelchair-accessible elevators; Mrs. Shulman is hoping to receive the rest of the financing (more than $30 million) from federal sources.
“For a major commercial area like downtown Flushing,” the lack of wheelchair access to the railroad “is ridiculous,” she said.
The success of most of these projects depends on large amounts of financing, which is far from certain in this economy. But the community leaders and developers say redevelopment is needed. Mr. Meyer, for one, is optimistic about the success of Flushing Commons.
“Flushing is a bridge between China and Korea and the United States,” he said. “As the economic center of gravity shifts to Asia, Flushing plays a greater role.”
Specifically, he sees a great demand for commercial space. Queens Crossing, a Flushing commercial center that F&T Group completed in 2008, sold out before construction began.
Mr. Yu, of the Flushing Business Improvement District, said he was happy that so much development was on the horizon but nervous about the practical effects in a neighborhood already congested with traffic. Already, he said, “it can take you six to eight minutes for one block.”
He added, “We’re going to miss the parking spaces.”
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