By NICK BUGLIONE
When most people walk along the back streets of downtown Flushing, they
see cracked sidewalks, abandoned warehouses and a brand new waste transfer station.
But architect Wellington Chen sees something much different . . .
The rezoning that took affect two years ago has tickled Chens
imagination, sparking the construction of a new electronics retail facility and the
development of another project at the nearby Queens County Savings Bank. From that, a
dream has arisen that could change the face of downtown Flushing into premiere office,
entertainment and shopping space.
"Ive been here
since 1970," said Chen, a Taiwan native and senior vice president of the
Flushing-based TDC Development and Construction Corp. "Ive been involved in
downtown Flushing actively since 75 because thats when the town started to go
down hill so to speak."
During the 1970s the mayor and
then-Borough President Donald Manes were concentrating their efforts on the development of
Jamaica, causing Flushing and other neighborhoods to slip through the cracks. The result
would prove to have a devastatingly negative impact on the area that is still felt today,
Stores closed down, warehouses were
abandoned and residents left the neighborhood in droves with a vast Asian community,
brought over from the 1964 Worlds Fair, filling the void.
"If you treat [a neighborhood] like
gold it becomes gold, if you treat it as trash, it is trash," Chen said.
"Perception becomes reality, there was a flight because a lot of people at the time
viewed the glass as half empty and to the Asians coming in the glass was half full."
Architect Wellington Chen stands
in the middle of the construction that
will turn this former warehouse
into a premiere electronics
retail mall (top right).
Tribune Photos by Ira Cohen
In the ensuing years parts of
downtown Flushing would become a neighborhood full of eyesores, falling victim to what
Chen so commonly refers to as "hodge-podge" development haphazard and
"Its like Dodge City," he
said. "I am of the sentiment that I dont know how we can, every year, sponsor
the U.S. Open with the blimp circling overhead showing this to the world."
The installation of a waste transfer
station a few months ago hasnt done much to improve the aesthetics of Flushing, Chen
added. Yet he was quick to point out that all of this can change.
With the rezoning of Flushing in 1998, Chen
saw a golden opportunity to significantly enhance the areas image and improve its
quality of life, while generating millions of dollars in revenue.
This vision of opportunity has manifested
itself into an extensive plan, entitled The Flushing West Redevelopment Project, that
seeks to transform the blighted and vacant warehouse district into a thriving
In 1998 the Department of
City Planning rezoned Flushing into C4-2 and C4-3 categories, essentially turning the area
into the largest regional commercial district within six miles.
"If you go east along Northern
Boulevard all the way to the Great Neck line, theres not another regional shopping
center category like C4-2," said Chen, noting that with this change buildings can now
be constructed as tall as the nearby Sheraton Hotel.
Previously in Queens, there have been no
major opportunities to build shopping and retail centers comparable to those in Nassau and
other counties, Chen said.
"We lose $385 million to Nassau in
revenue each year," Chen said TDC researchers discovered. "We are down to one
department store. For the last 20 years Roosevelt Field has been feeding on us."
The Flushing West Redevelopment
Projects planned development site runs north of Roosevelt Avenue to 37th Avenue, and
west from Prince Street to the Flushing River.
Since 1998 TDC Development has pumped over
$30 million into the project, buying up some 10 acres of land to be transformed.
Currently in phase one, TDC is working on
the construction of a modern office and electronics retail facility on Prince Street
between Roosevelt and 39th Avenues and are in predevelopment on a project at the Queens
County Savings Bank site east of Main Street between 38th and 39th avenues.
The four-phase plan, which will take 10
years to complete and will approach a billion dollars in cost, calls for the
reconstruction of vacant buildings into retail stores, offices, residential structures,
entertainment centers and high-tech business facilities.
The creation of an E-Square hopes to
attract global business, bringing international investments into the neighborhood.
"Were going to do it like
Madison Avenue. Were elevating the design bar," Chen said, explaining that
aesthetically pleasing architecture is a large priority of the project. "Within this
three-mile radius [in Flushing] we have $1 billion in spending power."
According to Chen, the extensive
construction would cause little disruption and no resident displacement.
"The buildings being transformed are
all vacant, rundown, dilapidated eye-sores, so thats what makes this
worthwhile," he said. "I believe it can be done."
He also plans for his work to coincide and
complement that of Muss Development, which has at its fingertips an additional 14 acres of
Flushing real estate that it hopes to develop into a retail and residential area.
Stan Markowitz, senior vice president of
Muss Development, said, "Hes quite interested in what were doing and
were quite interested in what hes doing. We will be taking a look this month
at each others projects."
Though Muss project is in its
planning stages, Markowitz said that an extensive redevelopment plan for Flushing appears
"This area is crying out for a change
from manufacturing to commercial and residential," said Markowitz.
Chen maintains that other cities, such as
Newark and San Diego, have proven that such a lofty redevelopment project can be
"We went on a tour around the
world," he said. "I found once you get outside New York this thing is done all
Yet more significant obstacles apparently
When Chen pitches his idea
to community leaders and potential business partners, he starts off with one simple word,
borrowing from songwriter John Lennon "imagine."
While his propositions seem to have no
trouble garnering support, money has been a different story.
If Chens entire plan goes through it will bring
hundreds of jobs to Flushing.
"The response has been
overwhelmingly positive . . . as long
as they dont have to put in money,"
In order to keep the ball rolling,
Chen hopes local leaders will get
more involved in the project and a redevelopment committee will be forged creating
a chain reaction that will encourage investors to jump on the bandwagon.
So far, elected officials seem receptive to
the idea. Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin said, "As a resident of Flushing for 30 years,
I support any development of the economy."
"We support the idea of redevelopment
in the area, but the borough president has not supported any one plan over the
other," said Dan Andrews, borough president spokesman.
Nevertheless if the rest of the plan is
expected to get off the ground, the government will have to create a special parking plan
to mitigate the problem that already plagues the area.
Traffic should figure to be an issue as well, though Chen
asserts that with 23 interconnecting buses, 2 express buses, a nearby LIRR station and the
highly used 7 train, the new Flushing district would be heavily
Care To Dream?
Step By Step Through The Redevelopment
Downtown Flushing is not the only area of
Queens waiting for a developer with a dream, but throughout the city, the process of
turning the dream into mortar and brick is the same.
The first step to any redevelopment project
in the borough is to secure property whether through long-term lease or ownership.
Ensuring the proper zoning is next in line.
If a developer purchases a plot of land and
its architectural plans do not conflict with area zoning, then the community board does
not get involved in the issue, explained Marilyn Bitterman, district manager of Community
However if it conflicts with the criteria
set by the Department of City Planning, the developer must apply for a variance with the
Board of Standards and Appeals.
"We get the paper work from the
attorney and then the board meets on it," said Bitterman.
Once the board asserts its position on the
issue, the borough presidents office then considers the plan. Opinions from both the
community board and the borough president are submitted to the Board of Standards and
Appeals, which takes them into consideration before making a final decision.
If the variance is granted, planning and construction on
the project can move forward.