Flushing Grows Up
Inner-city buildup comes to an outer borough
By Meral Agish and María Villaseñor
Flushing is already packed — and more businesses, more people and more offices are on the way.
While the focus on the construction boom in the outer boroughs has generally been in neighborhoods one subway stop from Manhattan, this community at the end of the No. 7 train is rapidly changing.
The neighborhood has been growing for decades, said Rob MacKay of the Queens Economic Development Corp. From 1970 to 2010 the total population grew by nearly 20 percent, according to census data. In the same period, the city’s population grew by 3.5 percent.
“Even when the economy was bad, Flushing was always good. There’s a lot of energy, a lot of movement, a lot of entrepreneurialism,” he said. But now, he said, development is exploding. “Flushing is booming, but it’s sort of out of the view of the English-speaking community.”
Current major developments will add hundreds of new residential units and more than half a million square feet of commercial space to the already densely populated area. The most prominent may be Flushing Commons, an $850 million project to redevelop a 5.5 acre parking lot with four new buildings, 600 apartments and 500,000 square feet of commercial space.
Flushing Commons was first approved by the Bloomberg administration in 2010 but was formally set in motion during the former mayor’s final days in office. The city sold the lot for $20 million on Dec. 30, 2013. The developers broke ground in January and expect to complete the project by 2017.
Local business owners worry that the influx of large-scale development projects could disrupt a neighborhood that has been long been home to low-rise residential buildings and small immigrant businesses.
A hundred businesses are easily packed into one side of one block, estimates Ikhwan Rim, the Union Street Small Business Association president and a jeweler. The owners and workers at these bakeries, accountants’ offices, clothing stores and bars support and shop at each others’ businesses, Rim said.
He opposes Flushing Commons because he thinks the large chain retail stores it will attract will mean low wages for workers in the community and profits that go to CEOs and shareholders far from Flushing.
“I think the most important problem is the city officials don’t understand the nature of the neighborhood,” he said.
Construction on the municipal parking lot that will become the shopping, office and recreation complex has already blocked off some parking. The cost of parking has also increased from $1 to $3 — a hike that’s a big deal in the neighborhood, Rim said.
He’s worried the development will worsen the quality of life for many residents.
“We’re bracing for impact,” he said.
But not every local was so pessimistic about the potential effects of Flushing Commons.
Flushing’s downtown streets are dominated by immigrant-owned businesses.
Richard Hourahan, 68, collections manager of the Queens Historical Society, works two blocks away from the site. He said the area had more pressing issues than development.
“It’s a classic, small businessman against the landlord, who’s to pick between them?” he said.
“I think there are other things that are more important. Education, the working person, not a small entrepreneur against a big entrepreneur.”
Other members of the local business community view the current wave of development as a natural next step for the neighborhood.
John Choe, the director of One Flushing, a local economic development center that supports greater growth in the area, believes the success of the area’s small businesses attracted large-scale investment.
“We’re one of the few neighborhoods that, during the recession, actually generated jobs. We haven’t had stores close or long-term vacancies,” he said.
Choe expects projects like Flushing Commons to boost the area’s prominence and make Flushing a “dynamic, international destination and economic powerhouse” on the level of downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan.
But he is concerned that further development will only exacerbate the area’s already overburdened infrastructure. Flushing-Main Street, the terminating stop on the No. 7 train, is already the busiest subway station in Queens and the 13th busiest in the city, according to the MTA’s most recent ridership data.
Two Views of the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, in the 1930s and today. The meeting house was built in 1694 and has remained largely intact even as it has been continuously used by the Quaker congregation. Today, a high rise building site looms behind the house of worship that gives a view of the neighborhood’s past life.
Choe said he has heard older residents, many of them descendants of European immigrants to Queens, grumble about the changing face of Flushing. But in fact the neighborhood has changed gradually — and dramatically — since the 1980s. In 1980 the area was 84 percent white, while the Asian population was just below 9 percent. By 2010 the white population had dropped to 30 percent, and the Asian population had risen to 50 percent.
Carol Bock, 90, a retired food writer and lifelong resident of Queens, said she remembers when the neighborhood was “all white farmhouses” — and also remembers the area’s decline during the 1970s.
“We were very concerned because it was all going downhill rapidly,” she said. When the influx of Asian immigrants began in the 1980s, she said, “it started going up again.”
Lois Lee, 65, has observed those demographic and cultural changes first-hand, both as a long-time resident and now as director of after-school education at the Chinese-American Planning Council’s Flushing branch. When she and her family moved to Flushing in the early 1960s, they were among the first Asian-American families. She said neighbors would make fun of her and sometimes threw trash at her family’s house.
By the 1980s, “Old Flushing was dying out,” Lee said. “That new wave of immigration by the Asian community really saved Flushing.”
Even after decades of immigrant-led success, visitors to the area seem shocked to see a teeming neighborhood whose packed streetscape is foreign to them, from the language of shop signs to the produce carried in markets, she said.
“Sometimes people wander around here, see the immigrant businesses, and say, ‘This isn’t America,” Lee said. “But it is America. This is America now.”Back to Overview