By LOUIS FLORES
Members of an activist group, the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, conducted a "gentrification tour" of a Queens neighborhood on Saturday, reciting facts and figures at various tour stops to recount in stark terms that Government policy was supporting radical changes to Long Island City that was displacing long-term tenants and changing the landscape of Queens. The tour was joined by approximately 50 people.
The Queens Gentrification Tour began outside the former site of 5Pointz, a building complex that was demolished to make way for two luxury apartment buildings. With the rumble of the 7 subway train overhead, a member of the activist group described how, in the time leading up to the New York City Council approval of the rezoning for the construction project, Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) accepted several thousand dollars in campaign donations from the Wolkoff family, owners of the site at the time. In advance of the tour, the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project released information in a blog post about real estate industry-related campaign donations received by Councilmember Van Bramer's campaign committee. Some of those figures were recounted during the tour.
For this report, the office of Councilmember Van Bramer did not answer a request to respond to the accusations made by anti-gentrification activists that Councilmember Van Bramer served the interests of his campaign committee's real estate donors.
At various stops of the tour, members of the activist group challenged what they described as the "myth" that real estate development in New York City was driven by the free market. Instead, one activist said at one tour stop that the New York tax policy known as 421-a was responsible for encouraging luxury real estate development speculation by eliminating property taxes to allow real estate developers to construct zone-busting apartment buildings. The annual cost of the 421-a property tax abatement program was reported as $1,4 billion in a report published by The New York Times. At several tour stops, the foregone $1,4 billion in annual property taxes was denounced for the missed opportunities to make strategic investments in infrastructure or public schools.
The tour attracted Democratic Party primary election Public Advocate candidate David Eisenbach. Mr. Eisenbach, who teaches history at Columbia University, took the time to introduce himself to tour participants, handing out flyers about his plan to save small businesses from rent gouging by commercial landlords. Speaking with a reporter, Mr. Eisenbach addressed a reöccuring theme during the tour, namely, that Government officials were responsible for promoting public policy that was contrary to the public interest. "Why do politicians run for public office, but then turn their backs on the public ?" Mr. Eisenbach asked, adding that, "This is supposed to be public service. That is why we need to elect non-career politicians, who really want to serve the public."
At the final stop of the gentrification tour, a member of the activist group, Queens Is Not For Sale, spoke outside a luxury apartment building developed by Rockrose. The activist said it was important for the community to confront elected officials, who were responsible for the disruption caused by gentrification. In October 2016, members of Queens Is Not For Sale interrupted a real estate conference attended by Councilmember Van Bramer and Borough President Melinda Katz (D-Queens), according to a report published by The Village Voice. Supporters of a controversial streetcar that Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) has proposed, known as the BQX, were scheduled tout the BQX at the real estate conference, according to The Village Voice report. A growing chorus of Queens activists have announced their opposition to the proposed BQX streetcar service, because real estate developers are reportedly counting on the streetcar service as a publicly-financed amenity to further develop luxury apartment buildings alongst the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront that will serve as the proposed streetcar's route. At several stops of the gentrification tour, activists repeatedly called for Government officials, including Councilmember Van Bramer, to withdraw support from the proposed BQX streetcar service.
Months prior to conducting the gentrification tour of Long Island City, the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project marched through parts of Sunnyside and Woodside to protest the pro-development policies supported by Councilmember Van Bramer. When taken with other actions by other groups, such as Queens Is Not For Sale ; the different factions opposing for different reasons the creation of more homeless shelters in Queens ; the legal opposition to Mayor de Blasio’s Willets Point development project; and the Rikers Island closure movement, Queens has become a hotbed of economic and social justice activism in recent months. The local activism challenging the neoliberal agenda of senior Queens Democratic Party officials comes at a time when national political activists have been attempting to force the Democratic Party to adopt a progressive agenda that addresses economic pressures facing voters. In Queens, the ranking Democratic Party official is U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens), who chairs the Queens Democratic County Committee and serves as chair of the Democratic Caucus, the fourth-highest ranking leadership position within the Democratic Party in the U.S. House of Representatives. Institutional political support provided by the Queens Democratic County Committee to Queens incumbents serves as a buffer against pressure politics campaigns mounted by activists and voters.
In the past, the pattern of a Councilmember raising money from real estate developers benefiting from the official acts of the same Councilmember created a publicly outcry for former Council Member Christine Quinn (D-West Village). She accepted donations from Rudin Management Company in the time prior to when she voted to approve the luxury condominium conversion for St. Vincent's Hospital. The ensuing controversy provided fodder for her critics, and the controversy played a central role in the activism movement to vote then Council Speaker Quinn out of public office when she lost the Democratic Party primary in the 2013 mayor's race. Because Councilmember Van Bramer has used his office to support the over-development of Long Island City, he has, in effect, leveraged his office to benefit the very wealthy at the expense of his constituents, activists have charged in an accusation that was similarly made of former Council Speaker Quinn.