For the third time in as many years, residents in Queens are voting for a borough president and, perhaps, it’s not a surprise that this year’s race has the feeling of an encore, with no new candidates eager to outrightly challenge the rising star theatrics of Donovan Richards, the city councilman who emerged victorious in a five-way race that pitted the real estate-development backed councilman against an assortment of other city council members along with more minor candidates.  

This time around, one of those candidates has returned — Elizabeth Crowley, a former city council member who came within a few hundred votes of winning last time. Crowley will be most well-known to local readers: while in city council, she was the visible face of the $7 million renovation of the Ridgewood Reservoir, which reopened to the public in 2013. But the good will did not last long and, in 2017, she was ejected by an insurgent campaign led by Bob Holden and which focused on the building of a homeless shelter in Masbeth.  

This time, Crowley has positioned herself as something of an insurgent herself and her campaign has adopted accordingly, from sending out mailers meant to look like eviction notices and, more recently, putting her fate behind Andrew Yang’s mayoral run. Like a number of races around the city, the election this year has turned on the issue of development and real estate, issues that borough presidents have a particular, if curious, role in. In a direct sort of way, the presidents are intermediaries between developers and the constellation of community boards whose members the president ultimately appoints (Back in April, Donovan named a little over a hundred new members of these boards.) They are tasked also with penning nonbinding advisory reports on such developments. It’s an oblique task, one routinely dismissed as powerless, but on that point, the argument on Crowley’s mailers is clear: “The developers making Queens less affordable are funding Donovan Richards.” 

It’s language that won’t sound unfamiliar to followers of the last decade of gentrification fights closer to the other side of the borough border. 

“Brooklyn kind of led the gentrification battle in New York City and Queens is kind of having its moment right now,” says Scott Larson, who teaches in the Urban Studies Department at Queens College and is the author of Building Like Moses in Mind: Contemporary Planning in New York City. “To developers, you know it’s this frontier.” 

Larson labels the politics, both of Richards and his immediate predecessor Melinda Katz, who left the job upon getting elected district attorney, generally and ultimately pro-development and generally to the aggrievement of the growing activist groups that have grown slowly around the borough, from the Western Queens Community Land Trust, who Larson works with, to groups like the Ridgewood Tenants Union who regularly protest new condominiums in the neighborhood.  

“Community groups felt betrayed,” Larson says. “With both Melinda Katz and Donovan Richards, those groups thought they had an ally and thought they could have an open conversation about this and really explain their side and their point of view and, after trying, really soured on what they were hoping was going to be a good relationship.” 

There’s a good reason those relationships might have soured. Before the New York City Campaign Finance Board ordered Richards to return as much as $21,000 following new campaign financing regulations last year, the line was that 30% of his contributions were coming from real estate-related businesses. Not able to contribute directly, a real estate-funded political action committee called Jobs for New York later dumped $104,000 into mailers in support of Richards’ eventually successful campaign. Successfully ensconced in office, the political action committees now pushing for his reelection are the labor unions that quietly wield power in Queens Democratic Party politics and have their own interests in continued construction, like a recent $23,000 mailing campaign, funded by a local Mason Tenders District Council: “He made sure Southeast Queens got its share of COVID-19 relief,” the union told voters.  

Over the past eight years, neighborhoods like Ridgewood have undergone rapid change. (Andrew Karpan)

But Crowley isn’t the race’s only candidate to peg their argument appeal on Richards’ historic ties to real estate development. Jimmy Van Bramer, the race’s only member of city council to still be in office, has made the same disavowals of real estate financing. Rejection of new development, in fact, figures prominently in the arguments for and against the candidate. The most high-profile moment of his career came during Amazon’s infamous efforts to build a new headquarters in Long Island City, which Bramer had jumped on board opposing in 2018. It’s a point that remains bitter for some: a different political action committee, this one backed by the New York City District Council of Carpenters, has spent over $70,000 on ad campaigns that targeting that deal in particular, with one of them reading: “His opposition to Amazon robbed New Yorkers of billions of dollars of investments.”  

On newer development projects, the pair have also squared off, most recently a plan to rezone parts of the waterfront near Flushing, which Bramer says were “pushed through by big box retailers and luxury developers” and which Richards backed while in city council. It’s a battle that’s being watched for what it might portend: in the past, both Richards and Katz long benefited from a political world that insisted development as a generally positive way to deal with empty lots. (“Redevelopment of two sizable underutilized lots next to the homes would be an improvement in this particular part of Ridgewood,” says Katz in a Queens Chronicle report from 2014.) The rejection of the Amazon project in Long Island City, one of the highest-profile development fights in recent history and still, clearly, a somewhat sore story and one, it’s worth noting, that Katz had enthusiastically backed, suggested that those politics were less tenable than they used to be. At some point, one can imagine someone in her place taking the position of rejecting development.   

“That’s not going to stop, a project, or necessarily green light a project, but it does set the tone in a big in a big political way, and that’s important,” Larson says.  

Top image credit: Andrew Karpan

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