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Flushing builder seeks to stem urban blight

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By many accounts, Wellington Chen has a lot to be proud of.

His company, TDC Development & Construction Corp., has recently completed two of the Sanford Tower Condominium and Prince Center Condominium, two downtown Flushing buildings that have won architectural honors.

But Chen is a frustrated man.

“This town had a great, golden opportunity to do something, and we let it slip,” Chen said. “You know what this town is about? It’s about unfulfilled potential.”

A Taiwanese immigrant, Chen was the first Asian American to serve on a Queens community board when he joined Community Board 7 in 1976. He has worked in both the private and public sectors, taking jobs with Queens College, serving as commissioner of the city Board of Standards and Appeals and joining TDC in 1998.

A resident of Little Neck, Chen sees TDC’s mission as producing projects desired by the community.

“We are not doing development for development’s sake,” he said. “We are trying to stem the urban deterioration and urban blight that is happening in downtown.”

But over the last few years, Chen has discovered that creating community-minded development is exceedingly difficult.

The six-story Prince Center, the first office building constructed in downtown Flushing in 15 years, has sold out all of its office space and is considered by many both a success and a sign of future development in the area.

Chen, however, said the four years it took TDC to complete the project were costly for the company.

Flushing zoning laws have tough parking requirements for office buildings. With a high water table underneath the Prince Center, TDC could not construct sufficient parking and had to seek a variance, which Chen said cost the company significant time and money.

The zoning laws are so stringent that many of the Main Street office buildings built early in the 20th century would need a variance if they were put up today, Chen said.

While Chen said TDC is willing to make an investment in Flushing, most other companies are not and find it more profitable to construct small, narrow buildings or hotels, which are not required to provide as much parking.

As a result, developers with a vision are discouraged from tackling Flushing, Chen said.

“Nothing can be built until they solve the government’s side of the problem, which is that every building requires a parking variance,” Chen said.

Despite his frustration, Chen retains some hope for Flushing.

In December, the city hired the Atlanta-based consulting firm of Cooper Carey Inc. to develop a master plan for downtown Flushing and Willets Point.

Chen hopes the firm’s conclusions will eventually result in both long-term planning and a relaxation of zoning laws.

“This is a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity,” Chen said. “All the elements are in line. We can do something great and leave a legacy behind.”

Although Chen said his vision is what the community wants, he has general ideas for the future of Flushing. In particular, he would like to see more office space, community gathering centers, such as a movie theater and health clubs, as well as more restaurants designed for English-speaking customers. Most important is a town square, Chen said.

“Just give us some open space,” he said. “Give us some greenery, give us a town center. It doesn’t have to be massive. If you go to Italian piazzas or Chinese town squares, they are intimate.”

His ultimate goal for Flushing is the development of a large urban job and retail center in Queens. Chen sees New York City as creating fewer jobs than many other cities both in the country and abroad.

“The whole northeast Queens is a bedroom community,” Chen said. “Queens has very few pockets of space to create jobs. We need jobs.”

TDC is eagerly anticipating both Cooper Carey’s conclusions and the city’s decision whether or not to act on them, Chen said.

His company owns a significant amount of property in the downtown Flushing area, which includes a parking lot across from the mall, the Queens County Savings Bank building property between the Flushing River and College Point Boulevard as well as the Flushing Mall, which the company hopes to transform into a larger complex.

TDC will hold off on any further development until Cooper Carey releases its plans, Chen said.

In the meantime, Chen waits anxiously.

“I’m just getting nervous because we’re running out of time.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.

Updated 10:25 am, October 12, 2011
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