Queens Activists Organize Against Rezoning for Target and Luxury Housing

Queens Activists Organize Against Rezoning for Target and Luxury Housing

July 2018

 More than 100 people turned out June 18 for a community forum opposing the planned spot rezoning of a former movie theater in Jackson Heights for a 13-story building with a Target department store and 120 mostly market-rate apartments. 

“Bringing in more market-rate housing and reeling in a union-bashing, right-wing donating, million-dollar corporation into our dense immigrant community is totally contradictory to the city’s line of this being a ‘sanctuary city,’” said Jorge Cabanillas of Queens Neighborhoods United, one of the groups that organized the forum. 

The site, on 82nd Street one block south of Roosevelt Avenue, was purchased in 2016 for $27 million by Sun Equity Partners and the Heskel Group, a Flushing-based real-estate firm led by Yeheskel Elias. It’s currently zoned for a 10-story building. The rezoned building would contain 30 to 36 units affordable, on average, for households making up 80 percent of area median income—up to $58,480 for a single person and up to $83,440 for a family of four—under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program. 

Opponents of the rezoning say those apartments will only be “affordable” to people making well above Jackson Heights and Elmhurst’s median incomes— a two-bedroom apartment could rent for more than $2,000 a month—and that bringing in a large corporate chain store will displace small businesses. Avigail Aviles of QNU says one business owner on 82nd Street told QNU organizers that it will have to close because its landlord raised its rent by 50 percent, from $7,000 to $10,500, saying “the block is now a luxury block.” 

Queens Community Board 4 voted unanimously against the proposed rezoning in March. That vote was only advisory, however, and Borough President Melinda Katz and the City Planning Commission have both approved the project. City Councilmember Francisco Moya (D-Queens), whose opinion will likely be decisive when the Council votes on it, has voiced conditional support. The Real Deal reported June 18 that Moya had negotiated with the developer to increase the number of “affordable” apartments from 36 to 42. That agreement is not legally binding, QNU organizers note. 

Participants in the June 18 forum criticized Moya’s position. “Moya’s argument is that he can’t do anything about this project. He told reporters today, that he was given lemons and he is making lemonade out of this project,” said QNU organizer Grace Chung, contending that the rezoning would increase traffic and provide minimal affordable housing. “How many people want to drink that kind of lemonade?” she asked. 

Moya has said he’s offered to meet with local activists and affordable housing groups, but they declined. Aviles, who lives in Corona, said the reason was that they want him to hear opinions from a broader base of constituents, instead of discussing the project in a private meeting. “The street vendors, the small businesses, the parents, each demographic is out there and is against it,” she says. “Because if he really did hear what they have to say, he wouldn’t be in favor of this rezoning.” 

QNU also notes that the Heskel Group’s Elias contributed to Moya’s re-election campaign last year, as well as donating the maximum allowable amount to Borough President Katz and Mayor Bill de Blasio, and giving more than $10,000 to Rep. Joseph Crowley, whose district includes Jackson Heights. Moya, Katz, and de Blasio have denied that these donations influenced their support for the project. 

QNU has suggested a legally binding community benefits agreement that would require that all housing built on the site be affordable to people making the neighborhood median income, as well as guaranteeing affordable leases for local small businesses. 

Moya did not attend the June 18 forum, so attendees marched to his neighborhood office afterwards, where they rallied despite heavy rain. They left a list of community demands they’d developed on the door.