Austin Street may see residential development with rezoning

By Jovana Rizzo | January 16, 2009 03:59PM

A proposed rezoning in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens would allow residential development for the first time on a portion of Austin Street, but residents say the area is already overcrowded.

The rezoning would apply to eight blocks bound by Austin Street and Queens Boulevard, Yellowstone Boulevard and 72nd Road, with varying height restrictions.

On the north side of Austin Street, between Yellowstone Boulevard and 70th Avenue, building heights will be allowed to reach 150 feet. While most buildings are below 70 feet, the current zoning does not include a height restriction. The rezoning would also alter the floor area ratio, or FAR, on the stretch of blocks, to 5 for residential, commercial and community uses, from 2 for commercial use and 4 for community facility use.

On Austin Street between 70th Avenue and 72nd Road, the FAR would be increased to 4 for residential, commercial and community facility use, from the existing FAR of 3 for commercial use, but down from the FAR of 4.8 for community facility use. Building heights of up to 70 feet will be allowed, while most of the buildings are currently below that.

While community residents are worried the zoning will bring increased development to the area, the inability of developers to borrow money
amid a frozen credit market may make new projects unlikely. And, a local developer believes the zoning will actually dissuade developers from building residential towers.

“On the surface it seems like it would be appealing to a developer,” said Anthony Colletti, COO of Cord Meyer. “What they did was they allowed residential development, but with prohibitive parking requirements.”

The rezoning allows for residential development, but developers are required to provide parking for 50 percent of the units built. Colletti said to build a residential project, developers would have to spend money creating underground garages for the buildings, which can be very costly.

“The parking requirements really make it virtually impossible,” Colletti said. “No one in their right mind would do it. [I think the rezoning] protects and preserves the commercial ground floor stores on Austin Street and if you want to build residential above it, you have to do it properly and responsibly. And most developers don’t want to do it properly and responsibly because it’s not profitable.”

Some Forest Hills residents are upset that the area is being rezoned with increased FARs, saying the street is already overcrowded with stores and restaurants and adding residential development will just increase traffic. The October 2008 issue of The Real Deal looked at the influx of restaurants and condos in the Forest Hills neighborhood, noting that at least seven new restaurants had opened directly in or near the area that is now up for rezoning.

“For those of us that live in the community of Forest Hills, we don’t even like to go down to Austin Street because it’s so crowded,” said Susanna Hoff, who owns Terrace Realty in Forest Hills with her husband, Robert. “What the community wants to see done is to have appropriate rezoning that doesn’t increase density in order to satisfy developers.”

Several community groups in the area have written to their City Council member, Melinda Katz, and Queens Borough President Helen Marshall to voice their concerns about the rezoning, including Hoff, the Friends of Station Square, the Forest Hills Van-Court Association and the Forest Hills Gardens Corp.

Katz said that several landowners in the area had requested rezoning variances for their properties, and instead of dealing with applications site by site, the City Planning Commission decided to rezone the entire area.

“We didn’t want separate applications and not have any sort of structure and finality on what the neighborhood potentially could look like,” Katz said

The area was last rezoned almost 50 years ago, so individual properties seeking variances have a good chance of winning them because property owners can argue the zoning is out-dated.

When asked about the increased density the zoning could bring, Katz said, “With any rezoning, there are always differences of opinion. As it goes through the process there will be modifications.”

The rezoning proposal is currently under review by the City Planning Commission, which is scheduled to vote on the proposal on January 21, according to spokesperson Jennifer Torres, and then move on to the City Council for review.