PRESS RELEASE (4-10-18): GROUPS FILED OPEN RECORDS REQUESTS ABOUT BQX TWO WEEKS BEFORE  LATEST CONTROVERSY: REQUEST FOR FEASIBILITY STUDY DENIED

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Michael Forest, 
queensantigentrification@gmail.com

GROUPS FILED OPEN RECORDS REQUESTS ABOUT BQX TWO WEEKS BEFORE  LATEST CONTROVERSY: REQUEST FOR FEASIBILITY STUDY DENIED

New York, NY (Apr. 10, 2018) – On March 28, 2018, the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, in collaboration with the news Web site Progress New York, filed a series of open records requests as part of an investigative effort to examine the Brooklyn Queens Connector, or BQX. A total of nine (9) open records requests have been filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).

Highlights include:

  1. FOIL request seeking NYC Department of Buildings construction records submitted by developers along the route of the BQX. The purpose of this FOIL request is to ascertain whether developers positioned to profit from this public works project have been properly reporting rent-regulated apartments.
  2. FOIA request seeking U.S. Department of Justice records from the ‘pay to play’ Federal corruption probe against the de Blasio administration specifically related to the BQX.
  3. FOIL request seeking NYC Department of Environmental Protection records, demonstrating the extent to which the City is aware of the relationship between large construction projects and increased lead levels in tap water.
  4. Financial feasibility studies related to the BQX used as the basis of controversial memo in which the City admitted the BQX was not financially feasible, submitted to the Office of the Mayor.

A full list of the FOIA/FOIL requests filed can be found here: https://progressnewyork.news/research-data/

The open records requests were filed two weeks before Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) was put on the defensive about media reports that again questioned the financial feasibility of the BQX project.

FOIL Request Constructively Denied

After filing one of the FOIL Requests, the one requesting BQX feasibility studies from the Office of the Mayor, we were informed that the Office of the Mayor would require one (1) year before a determination would be made about the release of records. Progress New York obtained guidance from the Committee on Open Government based in Albany, and the guidance provided indicates that if an Agency subject to FOIL refuses to grant access to records beyond 20 business days, that refusal can be treated or interpreted as a denial of records that can be appealed. Progress New York will be appealing this constructive denial.

The deliberate withholding of records by the Office of the Mayor comes as Mayor de Blasio has admitted that the City of New York will be unable to pay for the BQX project using a controversial value capture tax system that will benefit some participants in the real estate industry, who own or plan to develop real property along the proposed route of the BQX project.

Appeal for Legal Assistance

Progress New York seeks pro bono legal assistance in preparation, if necessary, to litigate the denial of records. If any lawyer or legal group can provide pro bono legal support, please contact: contact@progressnewyork.new
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Triple Threat Letter to Van Bramer

Dear Council Member Van Bramer:

We are writing this letter to give voice to hundreds of neighbors, small businesses, community board members, and other local stakeholders within our district who are deeply concerned about the future of their communities and who signed a petition urging you to oppose a “triple-threat.”

Every year, it is becoming increasingly unaffordable to live in District 26. As West Queens is experiencing a large building boom, rents and home prices have skyrocketed. In Long Island City, which is now the fastest growing neighborhood in the country, an average one-bedroom now costs $3,237. These high rents not only make it hard for LIC residents to stay but also pressure surrounding neighborhoods. As just one example, in Sunnyside, this past summer, a home sold for a record $1.9 million.

Beyond soaring property values, the overdevelopment of our neighborhoods has also paid a heavy toll on our infrastructure and environment: our subway lines are highly congested (with the 7 train being one of the worst offenders in the city😉 our schools are some of the most overcrowded city wide; our neighborhoods have some of the highest shortages of park space in the city; and our waterfront is endangered by overdevelopment.

This development did not happen by accident, or by the so-called “free-market;” the destruction of our neighborhoods is the direct result of irresponsible planning and public policies that favor luxury real estate developers and those with capital over everyone else. Specifically, these include the 421-a tax abatement that gives tax breaks to the largest luxury developers in LIC like Tishman Speyer and Rockrose, and rezonings for higher density which significantly enriched these same developers by allowing them to build super-tall residential towers that rival Manhattan. This not only includes neighborhood rezonings like the ones we have seen in LIC, but also spot rezonings, like the one you approved to allow the Wolkoff brothers to tear down Five Pointz and replace it with a luxury residential development.

As if this weren’t enough, we have learned that the Mayor has plans to encourage even more development in our communities—development that we know will not be affordable for low-income, or even middle-income New Yorkers. Specifically, he has planned a triple-threat, which if collectively passed would drastically change the future of West Queens. These include:

The BQX Trolley is a private trolley that would run along the waterfront in  Astoria, Queens and run through Long Island City all the way to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, displacing low-income residents and businesses along its entire stretch. This proposal may be in the “planning” phase, but we know enough about the plan to know that we do not need a luxury trolley in our neighborhoods. The plan’s financing is based on a value capture model—which is a euphemism for raising property values all along the waterfront, to be recaptured and help pay for the operations. Furthermore, as explained by Hunter Professor Sam Stein in the recent documentary, The Gentrification Express: Breaking Down the BQX, and a leaked confidential memo from the Mayor Bill de Blasio’s BQX advisory team to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, we have learned that even the $2.5 billion will not be enough to cover the costs, which are likely to far exceed this amount and come out of our tax dollars. This money could be much better used to address our existing 7 train issues, adding new bus routes to transit desserts, and improving “Access-A-Ride” car services that have dismally failed our most vulnerable seniors and neighbors with disabilities.

The Sunnyside Yards, where the city plans to build a new neighborhood that would comprise mostly of luxury housing. Earlier this year, the city released a feasibility study with various development scenarios. In every scenario, market-rate housing far outweighed any affordable housing or community use. At this early stage, the study predicts that this development could cost as much as $19 billion—that is $19 billion that could be put to much better use, such as covering the severe capital gap in NYCHA public housing, and investing in true low-income housing.

The Long Island City Core rezoning is the city’s plan to encourage more mixed-use, commercial development in LIC. While additional commercial space for existing, Queens-based small businesses and affordable studios would be desirable, given the already high density of LIC, we know that these new spaces will not be affordable. The city also claims that the rezoning would require developers to build additional “affordable units” through the Mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) plan. These additional units would be minimal as developers already have significant incentives through programs like ‘Affordable Housing New York’ which provides a 35-year tax break in exchange for building some “affordable units” in neighborhoods like LIC. We also know that units built through MIH are truly not affordable, as they are for households making an average of 60% of the area median income (approx. $50,000 for a household of three), and can also be for households making well over $100,000.

Furthermore, we are deeply concerned with the planning process itself, which to date has minimized resident participation, with minimal notice given to community residents and discussion formats that limit participation. In fact, during a recent planning meeting, residents were only able to present their thoughts after they demanded a town-hall format and seized the microphone from city planners.

During that town-hall, residents agreed: the only rezoning that should be considered in LIC is a downzoning to correct the mistakes of the past.

We are directing this these concerns to you, because while these proposals may come from the Mayor’s office, all three of these developments will eventually come to you for a vote. We also know that in cases where multiple Council Members are involved (such as the BQX proposal), you wield influence as the majority leader. The real estate industry has much to gain from your votes, and so we were not surprised to see that you raised nearly half a million dollars in campaign contributions–even while running unopposed. That is also why we were not surprised to find through our research (which was confirmed by an independent investigation by City Limits) that you are a top recipient of real estate money, accepting the most real estate dollars, second only to Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito.

 

We have heard you say that you are “concerned” about the triple-threat, and that these campaign contributions you have received from Luxury Real Estate Developers do not influence your decisions. If that is the case, we want you to put those words into action, specifically by challenging the Mayor and openly opposing these developments that will further destroy our communities.

We have also heard you say that these plans are too early in the planning stages, that action will come later, but we know that this is false. Once any of these plans make it to the city’s formal review process, Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), it will be extremely difficult for residents to influence the final outcomes, which are ultimately decided by the city, and voted on by you, our councilman. That is why Sunset Park residents (successfully) demanded that Council Member Menchaca withdraw his support from the BQX (he now admits that “the BQX is predicated on having a successfully gentrified neighborhood”) and that is why we are calling on you to stop the triple-threat now.

We are also collectively calling on you to fight for full funding of NYCHA public housing, which suffers from a $17 billion capital deficit as well as a city-wide rent freeze. We learned that you have called for a “city-wide rent freeze” in your re-election campaign platform, but we have yet to hear anything from you about how you plan to implement one across all residential and commercial units. Now that you have used this platform to win, we demand to know what is your plan to make this a reality for Queens residents who are in desperate need of housing protections.

To date, over 800 neighbors have joined us in signing a petition, calling on you to oppose these developments. These signatures have been collected collaboratively by Queens neighbors and grassroots groups including: Democratic Socialists of America – Queens Branch; Peoples Power Assemblies; Queens Anti Gentrification Project; Queens Is Not For Sale; and SPARC (Serve the People – Awaken Revolutionary Consciousness). Please find the paper signatures attached to the email, along with these additional online signatures.

This petition is only the beginning. For as long as these developments threaten our communities, we will continue to do the work of informing our neighbors and organizing with them to hold you, and all those in power accountable to do the right thing for the future of our families, neighbors and beloved communities.

Sincerely,

Queens Neighbors

Queens Anti Gentrification Project
Queens Is Not For Sale
SPARC
Democratic Socialists of America – Queens
Peoples Power Assemblies

Time to Put the Brakes on De Blasio’s BQX Trolley Plan

According to newly released documentary, Gentrification Express, it’s time to put the brakes once and for all on the BQX trolley plan.

In 2016, Mayor de Blasio announced a proposal for an above-ground streetcar that would link Brooklyn and Queens, following the trend to use trolleys to promote tourism and real estate development from Portland to Washington D.C.  The Brooklyn Queens Connector (known as the BQX) would link 10 neighborhoods along a 15 mile route stretching from Astoria, Queens to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. De Blasio and private real estate developers, represented by the “Friends of the BQX,” extoll the trolley as a model public-private partnership that would create jobs and bridge two boroughs as they are experiencing a development boom along the waterfront.

Local elected officials, including City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer have lined up behind the Mayor: “Mayor de Blasio’s forward thinking proposal promises to provide more Queens and Brooklyn residents with a new reliable transit option,” said Van Bramer in 2016 press release. The Mayor has also recruited NYCHA tenant leaders, and most recently, the Transit Workers Union to support the plan (read our open letter to the TWC here).

But not everyone is enamored with the Mayor’s shiny new project. Still in its planning phase, the BQX is facing significant opposition from planning and transit experts, as well as grassroots organizations and residents who fear that the BQX will cause more harm than good in communities that are already facing significant displacement pressures. The Gentrification Express documentary captures these concerns through interviews and analysis, highlighting three key reasons New Yorkers shouldn’t be so quick to jump aboard the BQX:

1. The BQX is too damn expensive.

Though privately operated, the BQX would not come free to the city. The Friends of the BQX project that the trolley will cost about $2.5 billion in tax payer dollars to build. This in itself is no small sum, but according to Hunter Professor Samuel Stein, the actual construction price could be even higher. He explains that a common strategy for developers is to low-ball project costs because once construction is underway with tax-payer dollars, no one will oppose putting in the extra dollars to see it through the finish line.

The costs don’t end with construction. The Friends of the BQX claim that the project will pay for itself through a strategy called “value-capture.” This financing strategy relies on the assumption that development will spur property tax increases along the route, and that these increases can be redirected into the operations costs. However, even a leaked city memo to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen points out that value capture won’t come close to covering the high costs. In other words, tax payers would end up covering most of the operations costs—and it will be expensive, particularly since the BQX route passes through FEMA-designated flood zones. “If a disaster like [Hurricane Sandy] happens again and the BQX flops the city is going to pay for that… and that’s coming out of our tax money,” said Sunset Park resident Antoinette Martinez.

2. The BQX’s primary purpose is to spur luxury real estate development.

MTA-Underserved Neighborhoods.jpg
The MTA has identified 9 neighborhoods most underserved by public transportation and none of them are along the BQX route. Taken from: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/intro_to_brt_phase2.pdf

In a recent report, the MTA identified 9 densely populated neighborhoods that are one half mile or further from public transportation. Strangely, the BQX doesn’t run through any of these neighborhoods. According to Sam Stein, that’s because the BQX’s main purpose isn’t to fix transit deserts—it is part of a larger strategy to catalyze luxury real estate development along the waterfront. According to the documentary, there are at least 10 developers with heavy real estate interests along the route. The NY Post has found that BQX-backing developers have contributed significantly to the de Blasio campaign.

“A lot of developers see the Brooklyn Queens waterfront as the gold coast, and it is for them. They come out and say it. The Jamestown Properties owners say, ‘We want another Williamsburg waterfront in Sunset Park… they’re not hiding what they want,” said Jenny Dubnau, a Long Island City-based artist.

bqx-trolley-developers.jpg
Documentary screenshot shows 10 major developers with significant real estate interests along the BQX Route (top to bottom): Durst Organization, Alma Realty, Tishman Speyer, Park Tower Group, Brookfield Properties, Two Trees, Steiner Studios, RAL Development, Toll Brothers and Jamestown Properties.

3. The BQX will lead to displacement of renters and manufacturing businesses.

The greatest concern expressed by advocates in the documentary is the fear that the BQX will push up property taxes, which in turn, will raise rents and displace low income New Yorkers.

“We are really being pushed out of this community… And that’s not fair. Why should we have to move out of the community we was raised in to go to someplace new when we’ve been here all our lives?” said Sylvia White, a NYCHA resident and leader of the Justice for All Coalition which opposes the BQX.

Renters are not the only ones concerned. According to Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE, the BQX also threatens the displacement of manufacturing jobs in communities like Sunset Park that is one of the largest live-work communities in NYC. Once the BQX is built, it will become much more lucrative for developers to choose residential over manufacturing developments.

What is an alternative to the BQX?

There’s one thing that BQX advocates and its opponents agree on: Queens and Brooklyn can benefit from improved transportation options. But according to Sam Stein, you don’t need a streetcar to have a fast moving mode of public transportation. The solution is an improved bus system that extends bus routes, and gives buses priority on streets so that they aren’t gridlocked in car traffic. While not as sexy as a new streetcar, express buses would provide the same commuting benefits, for only a fraction of the price—and no gentrification would be caused.

Watch the full documentary, Gentrification Express, for free here. This documentary is produced by NYC-based filmmakers Samantha Farinella and Amanda Katz.

Take Action:

  • Sign this petition and demand that Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer say no to the luxury trolley that would run through his district
  • Contact your local City Council Member to share your concerns and demand their opposition to the BQX Trolley. View this map to see if your district is along the BQX route.
  • Organize against the BQX. If Queens-based, contact us at queensantigentrification@gmail.com to find out how to get involved. If you are based in Brooklyn, connect with a local organization such as UPROSE (click here to view their transportation justice page).

Learn more:

Letter to Transit Workers Union

Mr. Samuelson,

We were surprised and troubled upon hearing the news that Transit Workers Union Local 100 had endorsed the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX). As neighbors working to keep Queens affordable for the working class, the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project (QAGP) unequivocally opposes the BQX for a number of reasons.

Our foremost concern is that the developer-backed project threatens further displacement of Queens and Brooklyn waterfront communities. But we also view the BQX in a context that sees politicians first cozying to organized labor for support, then caving to developer coercion against employment of union workers.

We explicitly oppose luxury development in all its manifestations — and in this particular case believe the developer sponsors of the BQX are simply using your union to garner support among working people as a means to further displace working people.

Dubbed the “gentrification express” by city hall staffers, the public-private project relies on the anticipated increased property values along its route for funding. The majority of the neighborhoods from Astoria to Sunset Park have already undergone swift deindustrialization, a fact which has left New York’s working class — once concentrated in these neighborhoods — underpaid and undervalued. Promises that the BQX will bring manufacturing back to our city are specious at best, considering the once industrial waterfront is actively being converted into an urban playground for the wealthy with projects like Sunset Park’s Industry City.

At a time when the protections and collective bargaining power of unionized workers are diminishing, we see working people penned into low-paying, harshly anti-union service sector industries and independently contracted jobs, which by nature deny workers any tangible benefits. It is our belief that there is an undeniable correlation between this shift and rising hostility towards workers city and nation-wide.

We’ve been down this road before. As you well know, before the existence of the TWU, New York’s subway lines were independently and privately owned. Until the 1935 Squeegee Strike — the TWU’s first organized strike — successive strike attempts by New York’s transit workers were broken. We remind you of this simply because TWU members carry on a rich legacy of collective power and we feel the endorsement of the BQX will ultimately undermine this legacy.

To endorse what amounts to an essentially private transit system, opens the transportation workers of New York City to the same type of harassment and anti-union sentiment that accompany all private companies on the road to profit.

We understand that you want to put your union to work. But as a representative of some 42,000 workers, the right of those workers — those New Yorkers — to affordable housing is ultimately jeopardized as luxury projects like the BQX come to our city.

The city and TWU’s interests would be better served by putting pressure on the governor to invest in our crumbling subway, an intricate and world-renowned transit system that serves some 6 million people daily and is in desperate need of a full-scale redevelopment — as the TWU knows better than anyone.

Additionally, the city could reach communities underserved by public transit with express bus lanes and material expansion of subways. Any of these alternatives would put TWU to work for a long time.

The Transit Workers of New York have long been the vanguard of what it is to be a New Yorker, serving not the wealthy 1%, but our neighbors and families.

We write to you as residents of Queens who see luxury redevelopment such as the BQX as the death knell in our borough’s reputation as a haven for working people the world over. We strongly ask you to reconsider the TWU’s endorsement of the BQX.

If you have any questions or concerns about how we might move forward with unity, please do reach out to us at your earliest convenience.

In solidarity,
Queens Anti-Gentrification Project

E: queensantigentrification@gmail.com