By Maurice Pinzon
Downtown Flushing is often referred to as the busiest mass transit commuter transfer point between buses and a subway in New York City. But is it also one of the busiest commercial districts in New York City. Some see the community as “vibrant” while others say it is out of control.
People who live in the community complain about limited sidewalk and parking space, fruit stands with stalls extending out onto pedestrian walkways, food and book vendors crowding pedestrians, business establishments not complying with City health and safety codes, and too many restaurants with few services to clean up after them. Sewers back up because restaurants dump grease and food byproducts by the curb.
Main Street and Roosevelt is considered the heart of downtown Flushing, where cars, delivery trucks, delivery bicycles, commuter vans, 23 bus routes, and livery cab drivers converge. The adjoining sidewalks and streets provide a constant infusion of thousands of commuters. The flow comes from the number 7 subway station and the Long Island Railroad. As long lines of straphangers wait to transfer to city buses, shoppers are on their way to Macy’s and Old Navy department stores. On the main avenues and the intersecting streets, small shops pack makeshift malls, while other stores overlap one another. The streets, vendor stalls, restaurants, pedestrians, shoppers, commuters, and piles of garbage from the business establishments and people results in garbage that overflows onto the sidewalks.
Residents say neither City Hall nor local representatives have addressed these issues, expending few resources to make the congestion manageable, the streets clean, city laws enforced, and the quality of life on the streets better. Instead, political paralysis has accompanied pedestrian and vehicular gridlock. Complaints from the community have gotten so persistent and strident that during the last two local elections, candidates felt compelled to make the issue of cleaning downtown Flushing a priority. Council member John Liu and Assembly member Barry Grodenchik were both elected after promising to make significant improvements to downtown Flushing. Last summer, Mr. Grodenchik wrote in his campaign literature that he would work towards tripling “fines for illegal dumping and blocking sidewalks” by businesses. He also promised to add more sanitation pickups and said that he supported “padlock[ing] stores with chronic violations.”
In the fall of December of 2002, City Hall appeared to be responding to the community’s grumbling. New York City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) announced it was hiring the planning firm of Cooper Carry to “further enhance the opportunities for continued economic growth in the community, while focusing on improvements that address quality of work and residential life concerns.” In a press release, EDC defined the geographical parameters of downtown Flushing, “bounded by 32nd Avenue, Parsons Boulevard, Sandford Avenue and the Flushing River. It also includes the Willets Point peninsula.”
EDC also provided the framework for a solution: “The goal of the project is to develop a comprehensive, area-wide framework for potential growth in retail, office and residential sectors coupled with transportation, transit, open space and community facilities improvements. Opportunities will also be identified to make better connections between the area’s regional destinations, such as nearby Shea Stadium and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and the Flushing River waterfront.”
Nevertheless, this last February, EDC, with the help of Community Board 7 brought together 134 business and community leaders. EDC organized two days of workshops in order to obtain ideas regarding the problems and possible solutions for downtown Flushing. At a subsequent community board public hearing last week, Ben Wauford and his staff from Cooper Carry, presented the results of the Downtown Flushing workshops. At least 100 residents who attended the hearing were asked by Mr. Wauford to comment on the list the workshop group had developed.
These were some of the items on the list:
More long-term parking
Parking for regional shoppers
Encourage parking west of Main Street
Parking should feed into mass transit
Distinguish between commercial and private parking
Parking informational system
Transportation and Transit:
Diminish and decentralize bus traffic
Create an opportunity for more transit services
Make Shea Stadium a more appealing alternative parking area for subway riders
Build a taxi stand
Signature civic public space
Clean up and reclaim the river as a significant public space for people
Willets Point should be a vital connection point
Broadened retail opportunities
Expand the regional retail viability of downtown Flushing
More office, convention and hotel development
Historic fabric and residential districts should be protected
Promote design excellence through design guidelines; developers have expressed a willingness to conform to guidelines
Not enough open space
Create a world-class open space network that connects to Flushing Meadows Park
Open space as a catalyst for economic development: The Waterfront as a destination
Willets Point, clean the water and the soil
Create a more distinct walkable district
Have an integrated vehicular and pedestrian balance
Pedestrian connection between Willets Point, downtown Flushing and the park
Residents responded enthusiastically if sometimes skeptically to the list of issues and the focus of the project.
Some agreed the community should have a modern developed downtown with movie theaters, hotels, and much greater commercial development to attract regional shoppers including a new waterfront and other amenities such as tapping the space available in Flushing Meadow Park.
In an interview with New York News Network, Robert Peck, the owner of Peck’s Office Plus stationery store on Main Street, just off of Northern Boulevard and which has been in business for over 4 decades, said he was hopeful any future development in downtown Flushing would bring more business to the area. But he said he was also concerned because it might do the opposite. Mr. Peck said, “In White Plains, they developed a galleria mall close to Main Street and they killed Main Street in White Plains.”
Others were concerned that the Flushing plan ignored the importance of the historical sites and culture of Flushing, and did not give enough emphasis to pedestrian-friendly streets, green space, and other issues that residents thought essential to the quality of life. Some thought the Cooper Carry study appeared to be driven by development, and only as a byproduct would it address other issues.
Some residents said EDC and the consultants had a predetermined goal, shifting the focus to the waterfront and away from what the community had traditionally seen as downtown Flushing, mainly, the shopping areas at the intersection of Main Street and Roosevelt and the surrounding streets. And indeed, Mr. Wauford and his team of consultants said the 134 community leaders had come up with a mission statement that had as its stated goal to: “Create an environment for economic growth that enhances the quality of life for both sides of the river.” Mr. Wauford said he had been told “it’s better you do nothing if you don’t include the waterfront.”
At the meeting, former Council member Julia Harrison asked Mr. Wauford if the effort by the City to be selected for the 2012 Olympics was part of the planning focus. Mr. Wauford said it was a consideration. Ms. Harrison, in a subsequent interview with New York News Network, said she believed that “Flushing is a hook to hide a hidden agenda.” That agenda, according to Ms. Harrison, includes changing the zoning laws to allow for venues and amenities for the Olympics or perhaps for a new stadium for the New York Mets.
Council member John Liu, in an interview with New York News Network said he thought both development and quality of life issues could be addressed simultaneously. “To get more parking you have to build more parking lots.” But he agreed with the outline of the Flushing plan where the waterfront was an important development component.
“The River should be considered a public amenity for downtown Flushing. Clean up the water so it doesn’t stink. Make it a place that people will want to visit,” Mr. Liu explained.
When asked about the area across Shea Stadium where car body shops and manufacturing businesses have been in business for decades, Mr. Liu said it was possible that land could be “condemned” by the City as part of the overall downtown Flushing plan.
New York News Network called EDC to clarify the goals for the Downtown Flushing development project. The agency did not call back.