The Fight for Flushing

Asian American Developers Confront an Aging White Community

The specter of a neighborhood rebuilt by a Taiwanese American real estate group haunts what's left of white-inhabited Flushing, Queens.

It came to light late in March that a company called the F&T Group, held by Taiwanese American business interests, hoped to buy and develop almost 1.5 million square feet of real estate on both banks of the Flushing River. The company's Web site featured extensive and detailed plans showing how downtown Flushing, home to increasing numbers of immigrants from Asia and South America, would become a fashionable waterfront district. The company already owns nearly 400,000 square feet of property on the east bank of this neighborhood.

According to the Web site, Flushing, which today lacks even a movie theater, would soon be home to shopping malls, hotels, nightclubs, college annexes, and rock-climbing facilities. The Web site was ostensibly aimed at investors who might want to set up shop in downtown Flushing, but with its sophisticated graphics and offers of translation services, accommodations, and the like, the site also seemed directed at Asian business ventures.

The only problem with this plan was that the community remained unaware of its existence. The local community board had no idea, for instance, that parking-starved Flushing's largest municipal lot (with 1100 spaces) was slated for redevelopment. Neither were the city's Economic Development Corporation or the office of local councilmember Julia Harrison informed of the plan.

The story of the F&T Group's plan for Flushing broke in a column in a neighborhood newspaper on March 29. By then (apparently following a reporter's queries), all mention of developing the parking lot had vanished from the company's Web site. Within a couple of days, the pages detailing the large-scale development of Flushing had also disappeared.

"The community has to be skeptical now," says John Watts, Harrison's chief of staff. Watts, once a supporter of the F&T plan for Flushing, recently turned against Wellington Chen, a senior vice president of the firm—and its point man in the community. Chen, Watts believes, has been less than forthcoming about F&T's intentions. Chen told the Voice that the Web site had been shut down because it was "full of errors."

Chen, an architect, is well-connected in New York's real estate community. In the 1990s, he served a five-year stint with the city's powerful Board of Standards and Appeals, which grants zoning variances to developers. He was also the first Chinese American member of the Flushing community board.

The F&T Group had already faced opposition from Harrison's office in January, when it purchased the stately Queens County Savings Bank on Flushing's Main Street, just a block from Harrison's district office. According to Watts, F&T had promised that the former bank would become a high-end retail store or a hotel. But just before the Chinese New Year in January, the bank became home to vendors selling Chinese foods and dry goods out of cardboard boxes. "It's a shoddy, fly-by-night flea market," Harrison told the Daily News, excoriating the owners for lying to her. Chen lashed back, accusing Harrison of a "Pearl Harbor-style attack," and of persecuting the Chinese. Harrison has been criticized before for making anti-Asian remarks. The development issue has had racial undertones from the start.

According to one group, the number of Asians in Queens rose 64.8 percent over the last 10 years. To put this in context, the entire population of Queens rose 14.2 percent.

This is not the first time Harrison has tangled with a Taiwanese developer. For years, she fiercely battled Flushing's most infamous realtor, Thomas Huang. Huang is the owner of the landmarked RKO Keith's Theater in Flushing. In 1999, he was indicted for destroying portions of the theater's interior and he pled guilty. The Keith's has always had tremendous sentimental value for the white population of Flushing, especially among those who have spent their whole lives here. (George Burns performed there in his vaudevillian days.) Huang purchased the Keith's in 1986 and shut it down almost immediately with plans to convert it into a shopping mall. The building's baroque interior had been partially landmarked in 1984, following an intense lobbying effort by local activists. Since Huang lowered the shutters at the Keith's, reviving the decrepit building has been a cause célèbre among Flushing's old-timers.

In 1999, following an investigation into a Huang-owned condominium by State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a court settlement forbade Huang from selling co-ops and condos in New York City. In Harrison's feud against Huang, Watts has been her field general. Alluding to Huang, Watts says, "We have to look at the past performance of the Asian developer." And as for the F&T Group's record, he points to the former Queens County Savings Bank. "That was simply an act of bad faith," Watts says. "I had four meetings with Wellington Chen—one was with the Department of City Planning—and everything I heard from him was about upscale development."

Chen will have none of it. "We had to pay the mortgage on the property," he says. "We wanted to build a hotel there but the numbers did not work out." Chen insists that the current food market is only a temporary proposition until F&T finds a better tenant.

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