Big developers shy away from downtown Flushing

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Twenty years ago, downtown Flushing was faltering. Veterans like HB Chevrolet and Howard’s men’s store had shuttered their businesses and moved out, setting in motion a pattern that other retail outlets like Alexander’s and Woolworth’s would later follow.

While the business district was losing commercial stature, Asian Americans were flocking to Flushing, bringing new businesses to Main Street and Union Street, and reviving what had been fast becoming a depressed district.

But their entrepreneurial spirit was also reshaping downtown Flushing’s image as a second Chinatown, an image that business and civic leaders say has discouraged national chain stores such as Barnes & Noble, Hallmark and Red Lobster from putting down roots.

“We can’t seem to get them interested,” said Marilyn Bitterman, the district manager of Community Board 7 in Flushing. “Barnes & Noble says it’s an Asian community. It has Asians, but Asians read American books. We’re lacking a bookstore, we’re lacking the good chain stores. There’s really nothing for young people.”

    To be sure, there is a Gap, a Lechter’s, a Bang-Bang, a Joyce Leslie, a Coconuts and a Starbucks, all in downtown. There is even a Sheraton Hotel. There used to be a Caldor, but it closed down several years ago. The Stern’s on Roosevelt Avenue is still there but is undergoing renovations to become a Macy’s. And an Old Navy is scheduled to open this summer on the corner of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue, the site of the former Woolworth’s.

    Over the last 10 years, downtown Flushing’s Asian-American population has grown continuously, a fact confirmed by the 2000 census figures and the jumble of Asian stores along thoroughfares like Union Street and Main Street. And with the number of people born in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea who live in the community board that covers Flushing nearly doubling since 1990, there are more second-generation Asian-Americans now than before, the business leaders say, many in their teens and early 20s, and the children of immigrants.

    “They are more Americanized and there is more potential for American businesses in this town now,” said Dai Park, executive director of the Korean American Association of Flushing, a 21-year-old organization that represents Korean businesses in Flushing. “Older Korean people, they rarely eat spaghetti or steak because they are not used to it. But, on the other hand, the younger generation, they love steak, they love pizza.”

    A few months ago, there was talk about a Chinese-American businessman and his plans to bring fast-food fare to Flushing. Ben Wong, an owner of Wok and Roll, a Chinese fast-food chain, bought the building where the Wendy’s massacre occurred last spring, and in an earlier interview had said he was considering opening a restaurant that would serve non-Asian food. Those plans were abandoned, however, when he decided instead to rent out the former restaurant, which is being converted into a mini-mall that will deal in Asian goods and that could open as early as this month.

    Still, Asian business leaders say they believe in Flushing’s marketability beyond the perimeter of its Asian population and that more must be done in the way of development to target other groups of consumers.

Wellington Chen, the consultant for a development and construction group owned by a Chinese American and a Korean American that represents investors in five pieces of property in the downtown district, has promoted what he calls a “vision” for Flushing, modeled after self-contained shopping villages that have been built in cities in California, Florida, China and Japan.

    Such a village would have major chain stores and restaurants that are commonplace in malls all across the country, thus opening up downtown Flushing to urban consumers and reserving a spot on the map as a serious center for retail business. It would also add a layer of vibrancy to a district whose present architecture radiates an image of bland conformity, said Chen, the consultant for the group, TDC. So far, though, the plans have gone no further than the blueprints.

    The group, he said, has tried to sell its vision of town centers to hundreds of builders, public and private alike, failing to hook any of them. Part of the problem, Chen said, lies with the pigeonhole into which Flushing has been put. The other part, he said, is the inflexible zoning regulations in downtown Flushing, even after they were revised in 1998.

    “There is a negative stereotype typecasting,” he said. “They view this section of town as being Asian. That is why development is so difficult.”

    The zoning obstacles that businesses typically encounter can be seen clearly in the development of a piece of land on Prince Street, down the street from the Sheraton Hotel, by TDC. Back in September, the owners of the property, Two Corners Inc., and TDC went before Community Board 7 to apply for a variance that would relax requirements on parking.

    Under the zoning for that area, the proposed building, a six-story L-shaped commercial structure, would need 206 parking spots. But because of a low water table, TDC argued, the developers could only provide 126 spots, 80 fewer than what the law allows. To compensate, the owner would install hydraulic lifts in the basement, so that vehicles could be stacked atop one another.

Although the community board approved the variance by a vote of 32-to-4, the owner nonetheless had to hire attorneys and architects to convince board members that having fewer parking spots was absolutely necessary.

So if zoning in downtown Flushing is so strict as to discourage new development, then why not take development elsewhere? Korean-Americans have.

In 1996, SK New York Inc., a real-estate developer based in Korea, invested $22 million to construct a high-end retail center on Northern Boulevard and 150th Street. Five years later, after encountering some financial hurdles along the way, the retail center named Seoul Plaza opened in December, marking the first time that Korean Americans had brought such a project to fruition. And it was done where the real estate was cheaper, the congestion lighter — outside of downtown Flushing.

“The Chinese portion is taking more of the downtown area for their business,” said Park, of the Korean American Association of Flushing. “Basically, the Korean residential population has slowly been moving toward Long Island and Korean businesses have been following them.”

Reach reporter Chris Fuchs by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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