Community Pushback Limits Development in Jackson Heights

More than 400 people attended the public hearing on a proposed expansion of a building on 82nd Street in Jackson Heights, Queens. (Photo by Javier Castaño via Queens Latino)

The communities of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, in Queens, scored a partial victory on Tuesday against the developers who demolished a historic theater on 82nd Street near Elmhurst Hospital to erect a 10-story building, currently under construction.

Sun Equity Partners and Heskel Group purchased the corner lot for $27 million, and now want to add three stories to the structure. At a hearing held in Elmhurst Hospital to protest the expansion, and after two hours of testimonies, 24 members of Community Board 4 voted against the developers. Four members abstained, and none voted in favor.

The debate held on Tuesday started at 7:15 p.m. and ended at 9:15 as community board members Ingrid Gómez and Sandra Muñoz took the microphone to say that they would vote against the construction of the three additional floors. Board President Damián Vargas tried to calm the over 400 people who attended the public hearing.

All testimonies offered opposed the expansion, which had the support of the 82nd Street BID. The first person to speak was Catalina Cruz, a resident of the area who is running for the Assembly to represent District 39. “This is a hazardous construction that fails to reflect our community, increases traffic and puts residents in danger,” said Cruz, who participated in a protest against the construction earlier in the day.

Attorney Nora Martins, from law firm Akerman LLP, was in charge of arguing the case in favor of the developers. She said that the building will have 128 parking spaces, a community center, that it would not include a hotel and that 30 percent of the apartments will be assigned to low-income families. “On the 22,000 square feet of commercial space in the two first floors, we will have a small Target store that will serve the community, and our objective is to build the additional floors,” said Martins.

“This construction signifies displacement and segregation, and it will not include low-income housing either, let’s not kid ourselves,” said attorney Shekar Krishnan.

No local politicians, not even Council member Francisco Moya, at whom the audience directed verbal attacks and signs with disparaging messages, attended the public hearing. State Sen. José Peralta was in Albany and sent a representative from his office, who read a document opposing the expansion of the building.

Pedro Peralta, from Local 32BJ, also opposed the development, as did Professor Catherine Rojas, who said: “[Even] if they vote in favor of this expansion, we will continue to fight for this neighborhood.”

Activist Jessica Ramos, who is running for the seat that Sen. José Peralta will leave vacant this year, said that she was born at Elmhurst Hospital and that, by rejecting this expansion, “we are building the foundation to defend a community that is suffering the consequences of displacement and deportations in the future.”

Diego Vargas said that this is an extremely diverse and attractive community for everyone and that “no tourist will come here to see this building but [rather] to enjoy the color, food and diversity of Jackson Heights.”

Tania Mattos and Jorge Cabanillas spoke against the expansion in the name of Queens Neighborhoods United.

“This neo-liberal construction will signify the displacement of our community and of the small businesses, which are a school of learning,” said urban planner Arturo I. Sánchez. “The money made by these small businesses circulates inside the community, but this type of construction favors chain stores such as Target, who take the money away and do not reinvest it in the community. It is a type of ethnic and racial segregation.”

Sam Stein, also an urban planner, said that this expansion should not be approved for any reason, “as it is detrimental to this community of immigrants.”

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