Wacky stuff is happening at the City Council.
Not long ago, a proposed Special Flushing Waterfront District was supposed to win approval without too much trouble because the local Council member, Peter Koo, supports the big development that it would allow.
How big? Nine buildings, 1,756 apartments, 29 acres — big enough that it would take three developers until 2025 to finish.
To Koo, it’s a no-brainer. As he said at a Council committee meeting Monday, the project would “transform an isolated and polluted brownfield into an active waterfront community with open space and promenade for the public,” not to mention create desperately needed jobs for the city’s recovery from Covid.
The project’s website has photos of said isolated, polluted brownfield. It also has spectacular renderings of the shiny new buildings and waterfront walkways that would replace it.
But things are going sideways at the City Council. That seems to be happening quite a bit lately.
So-called member deference usually makes these matters simple for developers. Make a deal with the local member and build what you agreed to. Fail, and build as-of-right or not at all.
At the Monday meeting, though, the developers’ lawyer, Ross Moskowitz, was greeted by members hostile to the plan. Francisco Moya and Antonio Reynoso said it did not have enough affordable housing — just 61 units — given that 70,000 New Yorkers are homeless. The next day, a third member, Brad Lander, opposed it in part for the same reason.
Make no mistake: These members understand that adding more than 1,700 apartments helps homeless people even if none end up in one: When people move in, it frees up their old apartments for others enduring homelessness or at risk of it.
They also understand that if they reject the rezoning, the developers could still build 1,463 units, all market-rate, and would have no obligation to provide other amenities Koo wants.
They further understand that there’s a pandemic and unemployment has skyrocketed, that people are looking for housing outside of Manhattan, and that the city is desperate for the tax revenue that megaprojects generate.
So what is going on?
Part of it is that most members are genetically programmed to demand as much affordable housing as they can imagine in every residential project.
Part of it may be that Koo is a former Republican and represents a district with an entirely different constituency from theirs. They pay no political price by undermining him.
But a big part is that the developers have not promised their projects’ jobs will go to the Hotel Trades Council and 32BJ SEIU. The unions’ opposition puts the rezoning in jeopardy.
At least, that’s what they want Koo to think. If he fears that at least 25 of his 50 City Council colleagues won’t mirror his vote, maybe he would ask the developers to meet the unions’ demands.
But that fear would be unjustified. Although these are two of the most politically active unions in the city, they are not strong enough to overcome the Council tradition of member deference. For proof, look at how the Industry City rezoning played out. Organized labor supported it, but the local member, Carlos Menchaca, did not — and he won. Three colleagues publicly opposed Menchaca, as is the case with Koo, but it didn’t matter.
Consider that Council Speaker Corey Johnson declined to round up votes to overcome member deference in Sunset Park. Why would he do so in Flushing?
The bottom line is, whether Koo’s priorities are union jobs, affordable housing or something else, he will negotiate for them and the rezoning will pass. And if the developers get tired of his colleagues’ politics and pandering, they will withdraw their application and build without new zoning.
As for Lander, his stance will be remembered by the unions when it’s time for them to endorse a candidate for city comptroller next year. Lander happens to be running.
It will also be remembered by Koo when it’s time for him to vote on the Gowanus rezoning, in Lander’s district. As they say, what goes around, comes around.