Flushing Grows Up: A Conversation With F&T Group’s Michael Meyer
By: John Petro on July 25th 2014 at 4:00 pm
About ten miles east of Grand Central Terminal, the 7 train terminates at Flushing Main Street. Stepping out into downtown Flushing, one is immediately struck with a sense of vibrancy, by the tangible energy of entrepreneurial activity. Flushing is home to over 5,000 businesses and 41,000 jobs, putting it right up there with Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City as one of the city’s most important outer borough business districts.
Like Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City, downtown Flushing – which vies with Sunset Park for the title of New York City’s most populous Chinese neighborhood – is brimming with potential for new businesses and job growth. The business district is getting a boost with the construction of Flushing Commons, a mixed-use project rising on a former municipal parking lot.
The first phase of this project will include 150 apartments and, notably, 220,000 square feet of commercial space, mostly offices. The second phase will add another 450 units of housing and an additional 150,000 square feet of office space, making Flushing Commons one of the largest new commercial projects in the outer boroughs.
Just how deep does Flushing’s potential for new office space run? YIMBY spoke with Michael Meyer, president of F&T Group, whose subsidiary TDC Development is leading the Flushing Commons development team.
F&T has been one of Flushing’s most active developers. Their Queens Crossing project, completed in 2007, included 210,000 square feet of office space, and they’re also working on One Fulton Square, another mixed-use mid-rise in downtown Flushing.
Right now the office market in Flushing is dominated by medical tenants, with Meyer estimating that 80 percent of Queens Crossing commercial tenants are medical users. “Most of the space we have here is office condominium,” Meyer said. “Our office building in Flushing Commons will be condo, and One Fulton Square, hitting the market now, is office condo. Those are predominantly sold to doctors, and they’re predominately sold to Chinese and Asian doctors,” with Flushing also being a major hub for New York City’s Korean community.
“Right now you don’t have any large corporate entities that would be behind a lot of office growth,” said Meyer. “You don’t have the large blocks of office space I think you’re going to need, like how Jet Blue went over to Long Island City. Nobody is going to build it on spec,” he said, unless a corporate tenant is lined up. “There’s so much interest in investing in Flushing from Asia, from mainland China, South Korea, Taiwan. Maybe it would take a large corporation from there.”
Meyer believes that Willets Point would have been an ideal location to attract this type of tenant. F&T was among the developers to submit a proposal for Willets Point, but the city ultimately chose Related Companies and Sterling to develop the site.
F&T’s proposal included a pedestrian bridge linking Willets Point to a reactivated Flushing waterfront. The bridge would not only have been an iconic structure, but sought to “link and expand the development zone and create a nexus in this area.”
“Looking forward, there could still be elements of that kind of thinking,” Meyer says. He thinks that the city should look at the Flushing waterfront as an area to be rezoned for “more enlightened, urban development.”
The area on the western edge of Flushing, on the waterfront across from Willets Point, was rezoned over a decade ago, but “that zoning wasn’t ideal for redevelopment from an urban standpoint,” Meyer says. “It was really more suburban, particularly because of the parking requirements.”
Meyer believes a rezoning effort along with a new park and waterfront esplanade would unleash a torrent of new development.
“If you could get the state, city and federal governments coordinated on cleaning up the creek and doing some infrastructure development there – like a pedestrian bridge – you would totally transform the area. That would allow extraordinary, extraordinary development and have an effect for generations.”
Meyer also thinks that providing incubator space for startups could ultimately lead to more commercial growth. “When we start talking about Flushing, because of the very entrepreneurial populace here, there’s an opportunity to incubate future office demand by doing initiatives like that. If you started small and it attracted foreign venture capital it could result in more robust commercial growth, and that’s something that would sit well with the population here.”
Parking requirements and suburban-style zoning are hurting the prospect of new development along the Flushing waterfront. In fact, city parking requirements nearly derailed the Flushing Commons development. He notes that because of pressure from the local community – shopkeepers, residents, and elected officials – Flushing Commons will have twice as much parking as would have been required under zoning.
“We prevailed at Flushing Commons, but we almost died because of the bias for parking. A huge threat to enlightened development is the attitude that people have towards parking and the misconceptions people have about parking, which is unfortunately enabled by local politicians who sort of support it.”
“If you didn’t have to worry about politics and you were trying to design a development in a congested area, you would come up with a traffic and urban and zoning plan that would not build so much parking.”
Meyer said that the Flushing Commons took so long to break ground because of the process of incorporating community benefits, but ultimately the idea of community benefits is valid.
“Getting all that to work,” including the parking, “was extraordinarily challenging.”
“I do think it is legitimate for community benefits to be introduced in developments where there is some sort of city subsidy, on city land. I think the political process by which that works is often counterproductive, and winds up making a lot of development expensive or unfeasible. Or it imposes such a burden that the development you ultimately get maybe isn’t the best for the neighborhood.”
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Seaport City: Development Dream, Feasible Reality?
By: John Petro on June 6th 2014 at 3:30 pm
Last summer, as part of a plan to protect New York from flooding due to climate change, the Bloomberg administration proposed building “Seaport City,” a Battery Park City-type development on the East River in Lower Manhattan. Landfill would be used to create a “multi-purpose levee”—19 feet high at its peak and reaching 500 feet into the East River—which would not only shield inland areas from floodwaters, but also support new commercial and residential development. Over time, the revenues from new development would help pay for flood-mitigation projects.
The idea is as intriguing as it is ambitious. To think: new land in Lower Manhattan! This alone is certainly enough to pique the interests of the city’s power elite. What’s more, it is perfectly clear that something must be done to protect Lower Manhattan from future flooding. The fact that new development could help finance flood protection is the cherry on top, and the primary rationale for Seaport City is the city’s belief it would be “self-financing.”
Five billion in city funds have already been put aside for resiliency measures; the federal government will kick in another $10 billion. Still, the city is $4.5 billion short of what it estimates will be needed to make New York stronger against climate change.
According to a report by the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the Seaport City concept could indeed be self-financing. The presentation details six different proposals for storm protection, ranging from a series of waterproof barriers and flood-fortified buildings along the existing shoreline to 500 feet of new land extending into the East River with new offices and apartments on top.
All six options—including the least ambitious—were “designed to achieve the same level of flood protection,” according to the study. But only two options would be self-financing. They would both extend 500 feet into the East River, with one featuring a destination park between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.
According to the EDC’s analysis, the “North Park” option is preferred, not only because it would bring in the biggest surplus–$900 million that could be used for other resiliency projects—but would also allow redevelopment projects at Pier 17 and the New Market Building to proceed.
This project would accommodate 12,000 new units of housing, 6.3 million square feet of commercial space, 1.4 million square feet of community facilities, and 26 acres of open space. Most of the new towers would rise south of Maiden Lane, with some smaller-scale development just north of Pier 17 and on another parcel north of the Manhattan Bridge.
It’s likely the city would take on most of the initial risk, establishing an authority or development corporation that would then issue bonds. Battery Park City and Hudson Yards offer precedents. In both cases a new entity was established to both finance the project and to act as a partner with the private sector. A private developer would purchase the right to develop, along with payments in lieu of taxes.
But will any developers bite? If things don’t go as planned at Hudson Yards there might not be much appetite for such a grand project. Will there even be demand for over six million square feet of new office space in lower Manhattan in the next 25 years? The city’s Independent Budget Office predicts that New York City will need anywhere between 30 and 87 million square feet of new office space by 2040, but with such a wide margin, there is a wide potential for errors.
Developers would also have to contend with NIMBYs, as well as building owners upset about losing river views. The project has already drawn the ire of Community Board 3, some of whom were skeptical of the city’s motives. Demands will also include affordable housing.
Could Lower Manhattan get the same level of flood protection for much less hassle? One proposal, called the Big U, would wrap around Manhattan from 57th on the west side, south to the Battery, and back up to 42nd. Along the East River in lower Manhattan, the Big U plan would rely on a “series of pavilions” underneath the FDR Drive and deployable flood barriers. The Big U would not support new apartments and offices.
According to the EDC’s study, these measures would not be sufficient by themselves, but would rather “act as an interim flood protection system.” Land reclamation is the best long-term solution, the report asserts, because it is “passive in nature, consisting only of earthen levee.”
Ultimately, a vision that plans for the worst-case scenario would most benefit New York. The ice sheets and glaciers of Antarctica and Greenland are receding faster than anticipated, potentially yielding a future with significantly higher sea levels.
Land reclamation does seem to be the city’s best option for flood protection, offering a permanent, 19-foot barrier. Building Seaport City would thus satisfy several city goals: job creation, new housing, and resiliency.
Mayor de Blasio has yet to weigh in on the merits of the Seaport City concept since learning of its feasibility. The mayor has positioned himself as pro-development and pro-density. Seaport City would certainly be big, and would have more than twice the number of apartments set to rise at Hunter’s Point South, currently the city’s largest residential project.
Building Seaport City would be a major headache for any mayoral administration, and its creation will require a mayor with mettle. Reward is seldom gained without risk — but if New York does not swim, it will surely sink. And if that’s the case, then everyone loses.
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Seaport City Coming Closer to Reality?
By: Nikolai Fedak on August 2nd 2013 at 8:00 am
Mayor Bloomberg’s vision to protect New York from future storm surge events and effects relating to ongoing climate change may be coming closer to reality, as NYEDC is now soliciting RFPs for the planned Seaport City development, which will form a new buffer between Manhattan and New York Harbor along the island’s southeast corner – the development is described as a ‘multi-purpose levee.’
Originally unveiled earlier this summer – as part of ‘A Stronger, More Resilient New York‘ – the Seaport City project may actually be legitimate, and not just a pipe dream. New York has seen several proposals involving landfill go nowhere, including an ambitious plan to connect Governor’s Island to Manhattan – that has obviously not yet occurred. Still, much of coastal Manhattan is landfill, and past projects like Battery Park City show the idea to be feasible.
Battery Park City is an especially apt comparison in light of Sandy, which barely touched the neighborhood despite the fact that it juts into New York Harbor. According to The New York Times’ Sandy flood map, much of the neighborhood actually avoided the rise of the Hudson – and the entirety actually became a separate island at the height of the surge. Adjacent blocks of Tribeca and the Financial District were devastated, and parts of the World Trade Center site were also flooded.
Much like the Financial District, the South Street Seaport vicinity was heavily damaged, with water rising up to ten feet. Many establishments have only just begun to re-open, as the damage was so great – the neighborhood is home to an older building stock, and many buildings power equipment was completely destroyed.
There is enormous pressure for new real estate in New York, so planning a new neighborhood that also functions as an enormous levee makes sense, and also makes storm protection more cost-efficient – though one thing the city must address is FDR Drive, which would bisect the new neighborhood from Manhattan. Making the same mistakes that have occurred with Battery Park City would be unwise, and leaving FDR Drive elevated would divide the new Seaport City, potentially creating a sterile environment.
As the new neighborhood could stretch from Battery Park to 14th Street - if the scope does follow what the initial plans indicate, as seen below – an inventive solution could put FDR at the existing shoreline, and capping it with the new neighborhood. This way, the levee could serve to protect from flooding, while also fixing traffic and re-unifying the East Side with the waterfront.
A truly bold move would have buildings face the harbor themselves; there is no reason seawall-quality steel could not be integrated into a facade, and a design for Seaport City that integrates its structures into a sea wall would be innovative and save an enormous amount of money, while allowing the sea wall to rise higher in the few unprotected spots between new buildings. Humans have gone beyond creating shorelines, and are now on the verge of controlling them; Manhattan would be an excellent first example.
Construction Update: Fulton Center
By: Nikolai Fedak on July 25th 2013 at 4:00 pm
Exterior work is wrapping up on Fulton Center, which is looking better and better as it approaches completion – opening is slated for 2014. Even in the summer, much of the building is stuck in the shade; the genius behind the oculus is already apparent in the above photo set, as it will allow for significantly more light to enter the transit hall, even while much of the building is in the shade.
Fulton Center will also contain 65,000 square feet of retail space, another major contribution to future pedestrian activity in the neighborhood. With both Fulton Center and the World Trade Center’s mall set to open in the near future, the FiDi may actually be on its way to becoming a prime shopping destination for tourists.
Besides the shopping, eleven subway lines will be linked beneath Fulton Center; it may not be the largest station, but it will prove to be an important waypoint for many commuters. Fulton Center is a vast improvement from the old subway stop, which was simply a maze of passageways, and will hopefully help further accelerate the FiDi renaissance.
Construction Update: Calatrava’s Transit Hub
By: Nikolai Fedak on June 10th 2013 at 12:00 pm
Calatrava’s Transit Hub is now rising out of its enormous pit, and the first sign of visible progress is the beginning of the steel spine which will connect all of the enormous ‘wings,’ the Transit Hub’s most distinguishing design element. The terminal will eventually reach 150 feet in height, far greater than the current stub, and the Hub will be an integral part of the new World Trade Center.
With construction wrapping up on both One World Trade and 150 Greenwich, the greater World Trade Center site is now two years away from regaining some semblance of normalcy; the completion of the Transit Hub will be pivotal in returning the site back to the pedestrian realm.
The Transit Hub’s cost has skyrocketed to $3.9 billion, which is almost as much as One World Trade Center – originally, the project was expected to cost $1.9 billion. No design is justified by such an exorbitant price-tag, and though the Transit Hub will probably look phenomenal, $3.9 billion could certainly have been spent on far better things.
Completion of the Transit Hub is expected for 2015, which is one year after Fulton Center is expected to open – taken together, the opening of both train stations will have a dramatic impact on the Financial District, which will finally have dramatic, visible, and attractive focal points for mass transit.