New Astoria Mega-Developments: In the Floodplain, Far From the Train

A waterfront residential development proposed for Astoria (in red) is 1.5 miles from the nearest subway and would overburden existing bus routes, but unless Council Member Vallone acts, it's full steam ahead. Image: ##http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/env_review/halletts_point/15_deis.pdf##Halletts Point Rezoning DEIS##

Development plans for a stretch of the Queens waterfront would add new retail and more than 4,300 new residences a mile and a half from the nearest subway station. So far, the only transportation plan for these new residents consists of more than 2,300 parking spaces and suggestions for expanded bus and ferry service.

Unless the city can come up with a better transportation plan, Council Member Peter F. Vallone, Jr. says he won’t guarantee his support for the first of the developments as it moves along the city’s land use approval track toward the City Council.

There are two projects under consideration in the area. Halletts Point, which has been under discussion for years and is already on its way to receiving land use approvals, would bring 2,644 residential units, a new supermarket, and approximately 1,400 parking spaces to what is now industrial land and the adjacent grounds of NYCHA’s Astoria Houses. A second project, the recently announced Astoria Cove, is slated for industrial land immediately to the northeast and consists of 1,701 residences, retail space, and 940 parking spaces.

According to the draft environmental impact statement for the project, Halletts Point is expected to generate about 1,000 new car trips, 1,200 subway trips, and 200 bus trips each rush hour. Because most subway riders are expected to use the bus to access the nearest train stations, the project would lead to overcrowding on the Q18, Q102, and Q103 buses, which are the only lines serving the area.

While existing bus service would be overwhelmed, the projected split between cars and transit still tilts far more heavily toward cars than the rest of the 11102 zip code, where only 19 percent of commuters drive or carpool, and almost 70 percent take transit, according to 2011 five-year estimates from the Census.

Solutions to make the developments less auto-dependent are threadbare. Astoria Cove developer Alma Realty, which helped defeat a pedestrian plaza on Newtown Avenue last year, has said it would provide private van service to the subway for its residents. Another proposal, favored by the Economic Development Corporation, is expanding East River Ferry service, which has a $4 fare and receives high per-passenger city subsidies that come to about $3 million annually. The EDC is searching for ways to fund ferry service to Halletts Point, but so far, no money has materialized.

As for buses, the draft EIS suggests adding extra runs to existing lines but notes that any new bus service is dependent on the funding and operational constraints of the MTA, which has not promised any new service to the area. (Further south, in Williamsburg, residents of another new waterfront residential zone have lobbied the MTA for new bus service that is scheduled to start this September.)

In Astoria, few officials are questioning the wisdom of rezoning flood-prone industrial land far from the subway for thousands of new apartments. “That peninsula needs development, everyone agrees on that,” Vallone told Streetsblog. “Both the mayor and the speaker have made this development a hallmark of their terms.”

Two projects would bring more than 4,300 new residential units to a point of land in Astoria a mile and a half from the nearest subway. Map: ##http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324787004578497184165032740.html##WSJ##

The Bloomberg administration has been a big booster of waterfront residential development, even in the face of concerns about climate change and storm surges, with its Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning yielding new residential towers along the East River. But most of the Astoria waterfront was excluded from the neighborhood’s rezoning in 2010, so Halletts Point and Astoria Cove must request separate zoning changes for their projects.

The Halletts Point plan has already received support from Community Board 1 and awaits comments from Borough President Helen Marshall before going before the City Planning Commission and eventually the City Council, where Vallone has a card to play: The City Council usually follows the lead of the local council member when it comes to approving land use requests.

“I am concerned that at this late date, they have not come forth with a concrete plan to provide transportation that this development would need,” he told Streetsblog, saying that he wants an “ironclad agreement” for expanded bus and ferry service. “The city and the MTA would have to provide more transportation alternatives,” he said.

But if the city and the MTA fail to commit to bus and ferry expansion, is Vallone willing to block the project when it reaches the City Council? “Unless I get a plan from the city, I cannot promise my support,” he said. “It’s going to be a very involved decision which I have not made yet.”

  • J

    No Mention of BRT/SBS on 21st Ave? The BRT Phase 2 study examined the East River waterfront as a potential location for new BRT service. It would certainly be a much shorter walk than to the N, and perhaps cheaper and more effective than subsidizing ferry service.

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/brt/downloads/pdf/intro_to_brt_phase2.pdf

  • Maybe by the time it is complete they’ll have Citibike. 🙂

  • I don’t really see the problem. High-density development drives transit demand. If the MTA doesn’t start increasing service before this is built, they certainly will once buildings start getting developed and transit demand and political pressure from the new residents goes up. Note that the increase in density would be gradual as in LIC–not all the buildings would be built at once.

  • carma

    2 words:

    BIKE SHARE

  • Bronxite

    Waterfront development is good for the city. Revenue! These designs include access, so it creates a destination and beautification. Less NIMBYs too, currently lower density (industrial).

    This development will also diversify the income portfolio in that subsection of greater Astoria. The current majority reside in the Astoria Houses (NYCHA).

    I fully support these developments. We need more housing. Astoria, LIC, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, these areas are HOT. Next will be coastal East Harlem and the UES once the SAS is done and the South Bronx waterfront. Either bring housing and jobs, or let it rot.

    We have to be progressive and it’s a pity for Vallone to potentially throw in the towel. We have options. SBS, ferries, bike share, bicycle infrastructure for personal bikes. Let’s use them all.

  • tyler

    I nice waterfront streetcar would be nice… no?

  • Bolwerk

    We need housing in places where it won’t be constantly punished by Sandy-like floods. There is simply no reason not to set a minimum height maximum of 10 stories or so within ten blocks of every subway station, zoning be damned.

    Meanwhile, mega-redevelopment in middle-of-nowhere places is categorically stupid if there isn’t a matching willingness to build subways to these new places.

  • Bolwerk

    NIMBYs would complain about the wires. I would (as usual) say LRVs would be the best solution for these high-density medium-distance trips that must ultimately feed a subway, but New York planners are so bizzaro anti-rail it’s ridiculous.

  • There are already several developments on the waterfront in the South Bronx underway or already done– but, they don’t have good waterfront access for the public which I find frustrating.

    Really every waterfront should be part of a greenway — the rivers belong to the people and we should be able to get to them to swim, to fish put in kayaks and other small boats.

    It’s better for developers too since it makes the development more desirable.

    In 15 years we will regret not getting it right the first time. Much like the East side is feeling regret now for not planning for public pedestrian access for the whole length of the East River. Look at how expensive it is to retrofit this stuff!

  • Bolwerk

    I’m not sure the rivers are safe for swimming or fishing. :-p

  • Joe R.

    I agree on both points.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    I can’t wait for the moment when a EIS proposes adding bikeshare kiosks as a mitigation plan.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    I can’t wait for the moment when a EIS proposes adding bikeshare kiosks as a mitigation plan.

  • It depends on how long it was since the last rain.

    The waterways are not as scary as many people think. Often I just want to throw people in the water then they’d realize it’s fine out there.

    I’d wager the air is a greater danger.

    Since we don’t have many comercial boats anymore the water can be used for fun!

    It’s like a giant park that everyone ignores!

  • It depends on how long it was since the last rain.

    The waterways are not as scary as many people think. Often I just want to throw people in the water then they’d realize it’s fine out there.

    I’d wager the air is a greater danger.

    Since we don’t have many comercial boats anymore the water can be used for fun!

    It’s like a giant park that everyone ignores!

  • Joe R.

    How about pedal boats? Or maybe evolving things further-boat share? Citiboats, anyone?

  • cc

    There really needs to be an LRT line of some sort (separated from traffic) that would be fast and frequent running near the Queens and Brooklyn waterfront that would connect to multiple subway stops.

  • Bolwerk

    It’s the same water, more or less, found at the beaches. The currents are pretty powerful in the East River and Hudson River, making swimming rather inadvisable.

    Though there is enough of a pollution problem that maybe ingesting things from it is also probably foolish.

  • JK

    Density is good — near transit. There is a reason the developer wants to build 2,300 parking spots. This area is very long walk from the subway. This is a recipe for high density, car dependence. This is more building mistakes in stone. It is wrong to expect tax payers elsewhere in NYC to heavily subsidize expensive new ferry transit for new developments far from existing subways or bus corridors. The city has repeatedly cut its operating support for the MTA’s existing bus and subway service. Where is all of this new operating money coming from, now and for the next century? And, why is the city allowing or subsidizing more housing in Zone B flood zones?

  • Larry Littlefield

    This article misses the obvious. Places that are beyond walking distance from the subway are within biking distance of the subway. In fact, this site is within biking distance of Midtown. A mile and a half by bicycle is the same as a mile walking. But on a bicycle, one might as well bike all the way to Queens Plaza where many subways are available.

    I’m not surprised Vallone doesn’t get it. But looking back on my decisions as to where to live years ago, places I simply didn’t consider are looking better now that I get around by bike.

    FYI WAY back in my days at City Planning (late 1980s?), there was the EIS for the Quality Housing program to try to encourage unsubsidized housing development in NYC which had stopped for 20 years after rent regulations were extended to post-WWII housing.

    A Citiwide estimate of housing induced was prepared, and then it had to be allocated. And since most of the outer boroughs were poor at the time, guess where a huge share of that projected new development ended up? Right here! Because Astoria was still middle class at the time.

    Now, here we are, decades and tens of thousands of housing units later, and development is finally proposed. So much for the wisdom of planners.

  • Jonathan

    It used to be that transit was developed first, then the density came. Now we do things backwards.

  • Jon

    I assume you mean on 21st Street? I’ve always thought that this would be a great idea- it’s a wide, underused road that could take commuters directly down to the Queensbridge F stop. Would allow for more development in Western Astoria and take pressure off the N line.

  • Bronxite

    I present this as a question:

    Is it better (economically) to develop mixed use property that creates jobs and housing on underutilized land while subsidizing new forms of transit (like ferries) or is it better to let it rot?

    I support these new developments (+ parking maximums).

    As for the flood zones, you can engineer around that.

  • Bronxite

    Modern LRV doesn’t need overhead wiring.

  • Bronxite

    Well I meant waterfront integration. I can’t think of any mixed use waterfront developments in the South Bronx that incorporate the shoreline into their design like these two do. Most of the South Bronx waterfront is underutilized and industrial.

  • I agree that it’s sad that we can’t plan ahead, but I don’t think this will be as bad as people fear.

    I agree with the article’s author that we should get as many transit concessions as we can from the MTA, the developers, and the City before this is built. But I think the transit will come.

  • Sadly 2,300 parking spots isn’t much more than the city-required minimum for this number of housing units.

  • Ian

    As an Astoria resident, these proposals are puzzling. This area is isolated in every sense from the rest of Astoria. Walking to the subway at 30th Ave is impractical, especially considering a steep gradient to climb along 27th Avenue. And bus service, outside rush hours, is rather infrequent.

    If I was a developer, I might seek to build in areas closer to the train along 30th Avenue and Astoria Blvd that are rather unutilized, yet these sections are being skipped over entirely for land that flooded during both Irene and Sandy. Citi Bike, or cycling would be nice, but that’s not the clientele these developers want to attract. Expect a lot of long time Queens residents and Long Islanders to settle here, seeking a less expensive condo alternative. And expect them to gravitate toward the transportation choices that they are accustomed to.

  • Bolwerk

    I suppose not, but it’s still likely preferable.

  • Stacy Walsh Rosenstock

    There’s a reason why this portion of the river is called Hellgate. It’s probably not as bad as it was but I’m sure there are better places for small boats.

  • Anonymous

    there’s a waterfront path there now that’s well hidden, not bike or outsider friendly. Why should it change when more rich people move in next to the projects?

  • Anonymous

    Bloomberg and Burden correctly identified long stretches of the NYC waterfront as underutilized from a development perspective. These are attractive places for new large scale residential development. It would replace light industrial uses that were either being underused or not used at all. It is relatively close to the Manhattan CBD. And people like being near the water for various reasons.

    However, the closeness to both the Manhattan CBD, and to each other, is often illusory in the context of the existing transportation network. Areas in Williamsburg and LIC were the first to be developed at large scale, and command premium prices, because they are clustered around the L train and 7 train. Most of the rest of the waterfront has no direct connection to Manhattan, and no easy way to get to other waterfront locations that are becoming centers for employment, living, and recreation.

    Ferry service is inefficient and will likely never have the capacity to move more than a small fraction of the residents. Bicycling is probably the most effective means to travel for trips both originating and ending in the boroughs, and for accessing distant subway stations, but can not realistically be used for daily commuting for a majority of trips. Even if all the residents could afford private cars, there simply isn’t enough parking and road capacity for this to be a viable alternative.

    The city needs more transit infrastructure to serve the waterfront development, or else it will fail to realize the potential of the upzoning and land use changes in this region. I believe this will be one of the most pressing issues for the city over the next 10 years.

  • Anonymous

    In LIC, most of the development is within a short walk from the #7 train at Vernon-Jackson, or E,M trains at Court Square. In this case, it is a matter of increasing service on the lines. There are limits on how much service can be added, but it’s much easier than providing brand new service to people who live a mile and a half from the nearest subway station.

    If people are willing to move to this development and pay premium prices anyway, it speaks to the severe housing shortage in the city. Historically, new subway routes get planned first, and then development occurs along the corridors. It could be decades before any meaningful service is added for the residents of a new development near Hallet’s Cove (or northern Greenpoint, or Domino, or Columbia Street/Carrol Gardens, or Redhook …)

  • Having gone over it a few time by kayak I can say it’s not that bad– you just need to know which why it’s flowing and plan your trip so you don’t need to fight the current.

    It’s totally flat, not so much as a single real edie.

  • Miles Bader

    A perfect opportunity for expanding the rail network!

  • aisia

    I live in Astoria Housing and this is horrible. This plain takes away our parks and minimal parking, makes already crowded and slow bus lines even worse. i hope that this plain does not reach full approval.

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