By David Brand
Borough President Melinda Katz met with local reporters Tuesday for a media roundtable discussion ahead of her annual State of the Borough address, which will have a specific focus on issues that affect Queens’ roughly 1.1 million immigrants.
Katz summarized growth in Queens during her time as borough president, including new affordable housing development, renovated parks and a significant increase in tourism and tourism-related jobs. She also looked to the future as borough president — a tenure that could end abruptly if she wins the June Democratic primary and November general election for Queens County district attorney. Katz was elected borough president in 2013 and reaches her term limit in 2021.
Katz declined to discuss her bid for DA during the 45-minute meeting at Borough Hall.
“If this were not a government building and I were not the Queens borough president holding a press conference on issues that are really important to a lot of people here in this great borough, I would probably answer your question,” Katz said in response to a question about her campaign. “But I am still the Queens borough president. I represent 2.3 million people in this borough and I think it is vital this borough still continues — whatever I’m doing — still providing services to the population that is here and the constituents that are here and I will continue to do that until I am out of office, term-limited out, whatever way.
Instead, Katz championed a new committee organized to advise residents about the 2020 U.S. Census, which may include a citizenship question. A federal judge blocked the citizenship question, but the federal government has appealed the ruling. If the citizenship question is reinstated, Katz said she encourages Queens residents to abstain from answering that specific question, regardless of their residency status.
Katz also addressed two major development projects underway in Queens — the controversial Amazon deal, which will enable the online retail giant and data repository to build a corporate campus in Long Island City, and the Willets Point Development Plan, an 11-year-old project that seemed to take a step forward last week when the New York City Economic Development Corporation shared two proposals from the Willets Point Task Force. Katz co-chairs the Task Force with Councilmember Francisco Moya.
One of the Task Force’s two proposals calls for the creation of “a true, high-density, mixed-use district” that includes 1,100 units of affordable housing, parks, a new high school, police station, firehouse and health center, according to the NYCEDC.
The second proposal includes building 1,100 affordable housing and a soccer stadium, which Katz has publicly supported in the past.
Last month, a coalition of community groups organized to demand the city develop at least 5,500 units of affordable housing on the 23-acre parcel of land in accordance with a 2008 plan passed by the City Council. The coalition, known as Nos Quedamos, opposes building a soccer stadium or other high-profile development at the site.
Katz said the 1,100 units of affordable housing comprised the first phase of development. She directed specific housing questions to NYCEDC.
“One of the compromises was the fact that the first phase, which was six acres, is going to be 100 percent affordable housing,” Katz said. “The 5,500 units of affordable housing originally was market value and affordable so building the 1100 units of affordable first takes most of that affordable into account.”
Katz said the two proposals require more community input.
“The second phase is 17 acres, we had four meetings of the Willets Point Task Force, a lot of back-and-forth between EDC and us about what we want to see there. We ended up with two scenarios that are the start of the community process,” she said.
As for Amazon, Katz said she continues to support the project despite backlash from many community residents who criticize the billions in tax incentives that the company will receive from the city and state as well as the potential for displacement due to rising rents.
“Eighteen months ago, we started advocating for Amazon to come here. We had been working for five years on a strategic tech plan for Long Island City … That allowed for training for people, places and programs,” Katz said, adding that the region was ready for Amazon’s arrival. “I will say the rollout was not good. There’s still a lot to be planned There’s still a lot to do.”
Katz said she wants to know how much money Amazon will invest in Western Queens, how many jobs will go to Queens residents, how many jobs will go to union workers and whether Queens residents will have a “path to unionship” to enable community members to apply for union jobs.
“We should know what types of numbers we’re working with,” she said. “But I do think from an economic standpoint we need to diversify the economy of the borough of Queens.”