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.
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.
Despite the controversy, Chen does have supporters in the white community. Marilyn Bitterman, district manager of Flushing’s Community Board 7, has known Chen since he became the first Chinese American member of the board back in 1977. “Wellington has always built quality stuff,” she says emphatically. There is proof of Chen’s “quality stuff” in downtown Flushing. On the corner of Sanford Avenue and Main Street stands the Sanford Plaza, a curvy and ornate condominium that sticks out in a dreary neighborhood of matchbox-shaped buildings.
Chen’s vision for Flushing is grand indeed. His supporters says he’s probably the only person active in the community for the past 25 years who has a real sense of Flushing’s architectural shortcomings. Because of zoning laws and variances, the district was built haphazardly. Storefronts have no uniformity and shop signs, mostly in Chinese and Korean, can best be described as psychedelic. There are developers who have stacked floors upon floors, expanding their buildings skyward with little regard for parking requirements. Chen calls these the “Tommy Huang specials.”
If Chen has his way, he contends, all this will change. But some white businessmen are not so sure. “Once they get the money,” says one veteran Flushing merchant, “let’s see what happens.”
Chen is a passionate man who can compare Flushing to a devastated Sarajevo and still have room to evoke the memories of John Lennon and John F. Kennedy Jr. But in his rambling conversation, all roads lead to Flushing. Fond of military metaphors, Chen says his “troops are holding the bridge” in the face of the determined attack from Harrison. “We are getting slaughtered, but we’ve dug in.”
Yet he is less than forthcoming about the F&T Group. “Let me tell you,” he insists, “actually, there is no such entity as the F&T Group.” According to Chen the Web site that contained the group’s name was the creation of one of its investors, a “cowboy” who had little grasp of the company’s true mission. Apparently, this same investor had come up with the name F&T Group purely for marketing purposes.
Chen refused to give the name of the investor or elaborate on what marketing purposes the name would serve. But a check of records at the city’s departments of buildings and finance shows the existence of a company called F&T International. According to these records, the company owns the former Queens County Savings Bank, the property for which Harrison gave Chen grief three months ago. The address of F&T International is listed as 133-32 41st Road in Flushing, which is also the address listed on Chen’s business card.
Despite these lapses, time is on Chen’s side. While Harrison still speaks for a majority of her white constituents, she is 80, and her supporters are mostly senior citizens. While significant in number, they will have to find someone else to vote for in the upcoming City Council race for Flushing’s seat. While numbers showing the rise in the Asian population of Flushing are not yet available, the borough-wide trend is astounding. According to the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, the number of Asians in Queens rose 64.8 percent over the last 10 years. To put this in context, the entire population of the borough rose 14.2 percent.
Harrison’s supporters may or may not vote for 33-year-old John Liu, who came to this country from Taiwan at the age of five and was brought up in Flushing. But Liu will likely have the support of the Queens County Democratic organization, whose leaders have already decided that the best way to control a rapidly changing population is to control the candidate at the starting gate. With county support and a proven fundraising ability, Liu is poised to succeed Harrison.
Sunny Chiu, a principal of F&T, gave Liu $500 in 1997 and an additional $800 this year.
Chen can afford to wait. In fact, he speaks of plans “five years from now.” It makes sense. There will be 35 new City Council members come next January and a brand new administration to influence in the coming four years. As he sees it, the only way white Flushing can benefit is by supporting him. “If I don’t build it,” he predicts, “Flushing will become a crappy Chinatown.”