Queens Beep Katz appoints panel to spur development in Jamaica

By LOUIS FLORES

Borough President Melinda Katz (D-Queens) has appointed a group panel of civic, business, and elected leaders to serve on the Jamaica Now Leadership Council, a panel that will exploit the full potential of economic and real estate development for Jamaica, Queens.

In making the appointments, announced last Tuesday, Borough President Katz said, in part, that, “Jamaica is one of the last affordable commercial hubs in the City, yet it is strategically positioned for huge growth thanks to its available housing and amenities and its easy access to mass transit,” adding that, “The members of the Leadership Council will be charged with ensuring that the Action Plan creates a diverse, vibrant and accessible community around one of our City’s great central business districts and inter-modal transportation hubs.”

Nominally, the panel members are tasked with executing the Jamaica Now Action Plan.

According to the document, "The Jamaica Now Action Plan seeks to address commercial, cultural, and arts hub [sic] to increase quality jobs and small business support, promote commercial growth and economic development, and improve livability."

The brochure essentially clears the way for gentrification to take root in Jamaica, Queens.  Indeed, the report was prepared in conjunction with de Blasio administration officials, who have announced their intentions to up-zone various neighborhoods in New York City, including East Harlem in Manhattan and East New York in Brooklyn.  Other neighborhoods are being made subject to mandatory inclusionary zoning, that will super-size the scale of new construction of apartment buildings in order to accommodate the mayor's goals for affordable housing.  The neighborhoods slated for mandatory inclusionary zoning are :  East New York, Brooklyn ; Long Island City and Flushing West in Queens ; the Jerome Avenue Corridor in The Bronx ; and the Bay Street Corridor in Staten Island, according to a report published by DNAinfo.

(In Manhattan, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-East Harlem) has appointed her own panel to oversee the rezoning for East Harlem, something that the de Blasio administration did not entrust to Borough President Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) to manage.)

According to Borough President Katz's press release, she was naming herself chair of the Jamaica Now Leadership Council, and two panel members will be selected by Borough President Katz to serve as co-chairs, a process that had not been completed at the time of the announcement of the panel's creation.

The list of members

The members of the Jamaica Now Leadership Council are : 

  • Adrienne Adams (Queens Community Board 12) ;
  • Maha Akhtar (Resident) ;
  • Nigel Nyrun Barker (Resident) ;
  • Rhonda Binda (Jamaica Center BID) ;
  • Brian Browne (St. John's University) ;
  • Ricardi Calixte (Queens Economic Development Corporation) ;
  • Tonya Cantlo-Cockfield (Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning) ;
  • Jennifer Ching (Queens Legal Services) ;
  • Salvatore D’Avola (Neighborhood Restore Housing Development Fund Corporation) ;
  • Reverend Floyd H. Flake (Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York) ;
  • Kevin J. Forrestal (Queens Community Board 8) ;
  • Deepmalya Ghosh (The Child Center of New York) ;
  • Michael Griffith (New York City Department of Transportation) ;
  • Adjoa Gzifa (Resident) ;
  • Tyrel Hankerson (Resident) ;
  • Ian Harris (Queens Community Board 12) ;
  • Cathy Hung (Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning/Jamaica Performing Arts Center) ;
  • Dr. Greg M. Ilag (Resident) ;
  • Derek Irby (165th Street Mall Improvement Association) ;
  • Bilal Karriem (Queens Community Board 12) ;
  • Malikka Karteron (Resident) ;
  • Michele Keller (Business Owner) ;
  • Michael X. Mattone (Commercial Property Owner/Developer) ;
  • Helen Maxwell (Neighborhood Housing Services of Jamaica) ;
  • Simone Price (Sutphin Boulevard BID) ;
  • Justin Rodgers (Greater Jamaica Development Corporation) ;
  • Pierina Ana Sanchez (Regional Plan Association) ;
  • Aaron Schwartz (Commercial Property Owner) ;
  • Emily Schwartz (King Manor Museum) ;
  • Earl Simons (York College) ;
  • Nakita Vanstory (LaGuardia Community College - Justice Community Program);
  • Bernard Warren (Jamaica YMCA);
  • Richard Werber (King Manor Museum);
  • Montgomery Wilkinson (Resident);
  • Tiffany Williams (YMCA Y-Roads Program);
  • Dr. Tom Zlabinger (York College) ; and
  • an unnamed representative of the Queens Library Central Branch.

Borough President Katz also named several elected officials to serve as ex-officio members to the Jamaica Now Leadership Council.  They are :

  • U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks (D-Queens) ;
  • State Senator Leroy Comrie (D-Jamaica) ;
  • State Senator James Sanders (D-South Ozone Park) ;
  • Assemblymember Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village) ; 
  • Assemblymember Vivian Cook (D-South Jamaica) ;
  • Assemblymember Michele Titus (D-South Ozone Park) ;
  • Assemblymember David Weprin (D-Jamaica Estates) ;
  • Councilmember Rory Lancman (D-Kew Gardens Hill) ; 
  • Councilmember I. Daneek Miller (D-Cambria Heights) ; 
  • Councilmember Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) ; and
  • Councilmember Ruben Wills (D-South Jamaica).

Conflicts of Interest

According to an analysis of relationships performed by Progress Queens, a few of the business leaders and elected officials have ties to the real estate industry, notably Borough President Katz herself, who was the former chair of the New York City Council Land Use Committee when she served as a municipal legislator, a leadership post that State Senator Comrie, an ex-officio member of the Jamaica Now Leadership Council, also held.  In that position, both Borough President Katz and State Senator Comrie were lobbied by real estate interests in respect of projects that were subject to New York City's Uniform Land Use Review Process, or ULURP review.  

Between her service in City Council and the Queens Borough President's office, Borough President Katz was employed as a lawyer for the lobbying law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP.  Greenberg Traurig's lobbying work routinely brings its lawyers into contact with City Councilmembers and city planning officials on a host of municipal regulatory issues, including issues pertaining to real estate and zoning.

Another ex-officio member of the Jamaica Now Leadership Council, Councilmember Richards, is the newly appointed chair of the City Council land use subcommittee on zoning.  He will be able to exert a great deal of direct influence over rezoning plans for the city in his official capacity. 

Mr. Mattone, the commercial real estate developer, is tangentially associated with the influential Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY, and the Partnership for New York City, the real estate industry's trade association and the conservative chamber of commerce-like group, respectively, which, severally and jointly, in turn, exert great sway over municipal and state politics.

And Mr. Warren, the vice president of the board of managers for the Jamaica YMCA, is also a member of the board at REBNY.

All of the ex-officio members of the Jamaica Now Leadership Council are also subject to the influence of REBNY and the Partnership for New York City.

According to statistics compiled by Capital New York and reported by Bill Mahoney, members of REBNY contributed $5.2 million in the 2014 state level election cycle to the New York State Democratic Committee and its housekeeping account, benefitting elected Democratic Party officials.

On the municipal level, members of REBNY funded a political action committee, deceptively named Jobs for New York, Inc., to help elect officials to the New York City Council who would support REBNY's pro-real estate agenda.  Amongst the City Council candidates in the 2013 municipal election, who benefitted from the independent expenditures of Jobs for New York was Councilmember Richards, the new chair of the City Council land use subcommittee on zoning, whose campaign benefited from over $37,500 spent by the Super PAC in support of his election.

Councilmember Richards won his special election race by less than 100 votes, so the $37,500 spent by Jobs for New York was critical in tipping the votes in his favor.

(As noted in an editorial published by Progress Queens, the electoral win by Councilmember Ritche Torres (D-The Bronx), the chair of the City Council committee on public housing, was similarly encumbered by influence of independent campaign expenditure support by Jobs for New York.  The leadership posts given to Councilmembers Donovan and Torres, who each oversee real estate-related areas of the municipal governance, were made by Council Speaker Mark-Viverito.)

For its part, the Partnership for New York City is able to influence public opinion about elected officials based on the statements its leadership routinely make to the press about government policies.

In response to a series of questions raised by Progress Queens about the scope and function of the Jamaica Now Leadership Council and other questions about the impact of the Jamaica Now Action Plan, a representative of Borough President Katz's office was unable to timely provide answers before the publication of this article.

Unanswered questions

In response to Mayor de Blasio's plan to up-zone various neighborhoods and to embrace increased real estate development, many neighborhood residents and tenant activists have raised concerns about the public not having input in the process to approve, modify, or oppose the up-zoning of neighborhoods. 

For example, Alicia Boyd, an activist on tenant issues in her neighborhood, has been arrested for leading the opposition to Mayor de Blasio's rezoning proposal for Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  While the example of Ms. Boyd's treatment may have been extreme, it worries residents and tenant activists alike that dissent is not only not tolerated, but that it can be met with the state taking resisting residents into criminal custody.

A source with Borough President Katz's office told Progress Queens that Jamaica is not presently scheduled for rezoning by the de Blasio administration.  However, Queens residents worry that the improvements that the Jamaica Now Leadership Council intend to bring about will not take place in a vacuum, meaning, that the planned improvements will likely yield to the gentrification of Jamaica, which will, in turn, likely inspire large-scale real estate development projects that could conceivably exceed the limits that zoning laws presently allow as of right.  

It is not clear what input Jamaica residents will have as the Jamaica Now Leadership Council implements the action plan, or whether the Jamaica Now Leadership Council will have the power or authority to make decisions or recommendations concerning the possibility of rezoning parts of Jamaica. 

As the action plan begins to be implemented, it is also not clear whether city planning officials are considering whether to handle possible rezonings resulting from the gentrification caused by the action plan on a one-on-one basis or whether some thought has been put into creating a neighborhood-wide master plan for Jamaica.  Indeed, the action plan refers to Jamaica as the "study area."  

One of the questions left unanswered by a representative of Borough President Katz's office was whether Jamaica would be being studied for eventual rezoning.

Community response

Joe Moretti, a resident of Jamaica, Queens, has been waging a campaign to bring better enforcement of traffic laws against large and heavy commercial trucks that are being driven through residential streets in his neighborhood.  In spite of launching each of the Clean Up Jamaica, Queens Now Web site and a related e-mail newsletter about quality of life issues in Jamaica, he has not been successful in having local elected officials, including the Queens Borough President's office, address his concerns about the lack of traffic and pedestrian safety in Jamaica.  "We are not heard," Mr. Moretti said.

Mr. Moretti's concerns have been reported about by Progress Queens and NY1 News.  

In an interview with Progress Queens, Mr. Moretti said he was pessimistic about the community having input on how the growth of economic and real estate development will be managed in Jamaica.  Mr. Moretti listed many problems with the business mix and with zoning that are the source of complaints in his neighborhood, rhetorically asking how could it have been that a waste transfer station could be installed near a park and in a neighborhood that is home to many children and senior citizens.  The waste transfer station was the site of a triple death accident in a 2009 incident of fatal occupational hazard conditions.

Mr. Moretti said that if city planning officials would allow such a dangerous site near a residential neighborhood in Jamaica, then he did not expect that city planning officials would allow the community to have input on "something extremely important," like real estate development in the rest of Jamaica.

Referring to various businesses, such as the waste transfer station and auto repair shops, Mr. Moretti said, "Those businesses were dumped into a residential area, right across a park, near senior citizen buildings.  If they," referring to city planning officials, "did that with polluting waste facilities, what are they going to do with larger developments ?"

Mr. Moretti drew an important contrast between how city planning officials have treated Jamaica and other Queens neighborhoods, such as the well-manicured neighborhood of Forest Hills.  "Would real estate developers be given carte blanche in Forest Hills ?" asked Mr. Moretti.

Having cursorily reviewed the members appointed to the Jamaica Now Leadership Council, Mr. Moretti said he was worried about the integrity of some of its members.  Mr. Moretti noted that the Rev. Flake had been involved in business transactions that had been labeled as possibly questionable.

Indeed, the Rev. Flake was the founder of Empowerment Development Corp., which was a partner in the consortium that bid for control of the racino at Aqueduct Racetrack, a deal that eventually was accepted then rejected by state officials, only to be later examined by state investigators and then referred to prosecutors for probing of possible wrong-doing in the bidding process.

A questionable businessman, Darryl Green, was also briefly and tangentially involved in the bid for the racino contract made by the consortium that included Rev. Flake's company.

The Rev. Flake was also a mentor to former State Senator Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans), who was found guilty in a federal corruption trial for having attempted to bribe his way onto the GOP mayoral ballot in the 2013 municipal election cycle.   

The Jamaica Now Leadership Council also includes various leaders from economic development corporations and business improvement districts, who undoubtedly support greater gentrification.

In other neighborhoods in Queens, small businesses and activists have been opposing the creeping influence of business improvement districts out of concerns for the negative impact of higher commercial rents, which small business owners say that they are unable to afford.  In Jackson Heights, the Roosevelt Avenue Community Alliance has been fighting gentrification.  A proposed business improvement district along Roosevelt Avenue has been the source of tension between supporters and opponents.

City-wide, activists have been waging a campaign entitled #SaveNYC to fight the onslaught of increased rents imposed by commercial landlords on small businesses as a way to protect the diversity of city's businesses and to save the jobs associated with small businesses.

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