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Courtesy of Phipps Houses
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer is blocking the Phipps Houses proposal to build a 10-story development on Barnett Avenue in Sunnyside.
By Bill Parry

More than 200 anxious residents of Sunnyside gathered Sunday at the Queen of Angels Parish Center for a panel discussion on the over-development of western Queens. They were united in opposition to the Phipps Houses plan to build 209-units of affordable housing on a parking lot at 50-02 Barnett Ave., a project that was to have its first hearing before a City Council subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

Herb Reynolds, the president of the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance, distributed fliers declaring the need for a “big turnout of neighbors” at the public hearing. It wasn’t necessary.

Phipps Houses withdrew its rezoning application with the city Monday, City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) announced. Van Bramer vowed to block the plan after a year of intense public opposition.

He cited the height of the building, its unaffordability, the developer’s refusal to make changes based on community feedback during the yearlong process and concerns with maintenance at the Phipps Gardens Apartments across Barnett Avenue.

“I welcome this decision,” Van Bramer said Monday. “All along, I’ve asked for Phipps to address issues at the 472-unit complex they own and operate across the street from the proposed new building. Last week, Phipps CEO Adam Weinstein did meet with tenant leaders. I thank Adam for doing so and will continue to work together to make sure these issues are addressed. And I’ll continue to speak with all parties concerned making sure that the voices and concerns of my constituents are paramount as we discuss the future of this community.”

The City Council would likely have voted against the project next week in keeping with protocol to follow the decision of the area’s representative. The de Blasio administration strongly backed the project and the mayor had a “polite but firm” conversation with Van Bramer two weeks ago.

“Let’s not mince words: This is bad for our city and for working families struggling to pay their rent,” de Blasio spokeswoman Melissa Grace said after Phipps Houses pulled out. “No community, certainly not one with 7,000 people wait-listed for affordable housing, should lose a development like this.”

It was a second defeat in two months for de Blasio’s plan to expand below-market-rate housing under the new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy. Van Bramer, who said he got more feedback from residents and neighbors on the Phipps project than on any other issue in his 6 1/2 years on the City Council, suggested the mayor’s strategy may have backfired in Sunnyside.

“The mayor’s involvement here was not helpful,” Van Bramer said. “His comments about me helped to get my community riled up, and that was not conducive to working out a deal.”

Phipps Houses declined to comment, but during a visit to the TimesLedger Newspapers offices in May, President and CEO Adam Weinstein warned what might happen if the zoning request was denied.

“There are users that would buy this property for its market value that would provide for something that’s worse than what’s there,” he said. “It could be obnoxious, generate traffic, it wouldn’t bring the amenities we bring and it wouldn’t put eyes on Barnett Avenue and bring life. It could be pretty awful and that’s the reality.”

Meanwhile, the community is asking more of Van Bramer, who is majority leader and chairman of the Cultural Affairs Committee. During the panel discussion called “Jobs, Homes & ‘Hoods,” residents were asked to sign a petition urging Van Bramer to call a committee hearing on the small business and arts crisis in western Queens, where commercial rents double and triple overnight, forcing out mom & pops, artists and cultural institutions.

Panelists urged the Council to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a bill languishing in the City Council since the ‘80s, which would provide lease protection to all commercial renters in the city. Kirsten Theodos, the lead advocate of TakeBackNYC, declared the future of the Queens economy is in danger without the legislation.

“It’s already game over in Manhattan, but it’s not too late for Queens,” she said.

Steve Null, the author of the bill, urged the residents to speak up for the mom & pops.

“Small business owners are not politically active because they’re taking care of business, they have no voice in politics so they need you to support this bill,” Null said. “It will restore the American Dream for all of these mom & pops or else they’re finished.”

Arturo Sanchez, a 20-year member of CB 3, and a former professor of City Planning, has fought the expansion of the 82nd Street Partnership from Jackson Heights into Corona, a move that would make it the largest Business Improvement District in the city.

“All the working class immigrant communities aren’t being displaced, they are being permanently expelled to make way for privatization and the big chain stores,” Sanchez said. “Long Island City and Flushing are growth clusters just like Lincoln Center and Columbia University were. Have you ever been to the Upper West Side? It used to be the Jets vs. the Sharks and now the gentrification is complete.”

Astoria resident Mitch Waxman, a historian with the Newtown Creek Alliance, became an anti-gentrification activist following the 2006 blackout in western Queens which claimed two lives.

“The infrastructure just isn’t prepared for the amount of people who are on their way,” Waxman said. “This is our community and right now we have a bunch of people who don’t live here who are developing it for us. How is this good for Queens?”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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