It’s Saturday morning and Jorge Cabanillas, 26, is speaking to a circle of community organizers in a park square off 82nd Street and Baxter Avenue that intersects the Jackson Heights-Corona-Elmhurst neighborhoods. Amid the sounds of the nearby 7 train, ambulance cars en route to Elmhurst Hospital, and warm salutations in Spanish by passersby, Cabanillas is on a mission to stop gentrification.
He’s joined by four other members of Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU) and eight volunteers who spend one Saturday a month warning small businesses about the new Target coming to the area. Higher rents, the erasure of neighborhood culture and local businesses are a few of the specific concerns.
Cabanillas is not naive about the mixed feelings the community may have in bringing a brand name retailer into the mix of mom-and-pop shops along 82nd street.
“There may be people who are pro-Target,” he says. “Historically they have been excluded from these amenities in their neighborhood. But the other side is that it will not benefit the community in the long-term as rents [are likely to] increase for everybody.”
Pushback on the development has been ongoing since Target announced its expansion of a small-format store in the community in May. The “discount chic” retailer already has four Queens locations in Elmhurst, College Point, Flushing, and Forest Hills.
Grassroots groups like QNU see the development on 82nd street as an anchor to future displacement of business owners and families. The intersecting communities are already threatened by the myriad of issues caused by overcrowding, rising rents, and a shortage of affordable housing. Even Cabanillas, who grew up in the community, was forced to move with his family to distant College Point for cheaper housing.
An Old Navy and Banana Republic and Gap Outlets have already occupied space on the south side of 82nd street since 2015—development, QNU says, pushed out several Colombian restaurant and business owners from a stretch of retail along 82nd street locally referred to as Calle de Colombia.
Target is the first retailer to sign a lease to occupy a portion of what is to become the “Shoppes at 82nd Street.” The development will be built where the former historic Jackson Heights Theatre and other small businesses sat on 82nd Street. Purchased by Sun Equity Partners and the Heskel Group for $27 million in September 2016, the planned 160,000-square-foot-building development is one of many for the developers, whose goal is to bring top-tier commercial business into the community. Sun Equity has developed several residential properties in Manhattan and New Jersey, and have plans to bring mixed-used developments to the Bronx. Heskel has been behind the development of a few commercial retail buildings in Forest Hills, Queens as well as Manhattan.
“We want to bring in a retailer that caters to the cost of living in the area and meets the needs of the local residents,” Yeheskel Elias, CEO of the Heskel Group, told the Jackson Heights Post. “We’re trying to do something for the underserved, while also trying to put up a building that is going to be the wow factor for Jackson Heights.”
Some of the small business owners Cabanillas and the team of volunteers speak with on their canvassing mission are receptive. Others don’t agree that the development will be problematic for the future of their business, Cabanillas says.
One deli owner the QNU spoke with said he doesn’t feel that he’ll be competing for business. With the added foot traffic, he said he’ll get more business.
Another owner who runs a botanica, which will face the development, is concerned about potential tax increases which, she says in Spanish, her landlord will surely pass on to her as a rent increase.
Her shop is a sensory experience of essential oils, religious candles, and inviting smells of senna and nettle, where glass cases full of “St. Peter’s Prosperity Wash” in white bottles are reflective of the cultural retail services smaller stores provide a predominantly Latin American immigrant community.
Attempting to hide the worry on her face, she folds her hands and simply says she’ll “wait and see” what happens once the construction is complete.
Leslie Ramos, executive director of the 82nd Street Partnership, which carries out Business Improvement District planning for the district between 37th street and Baxter Avenue along 82nd street, says she respects the concern that grassroots organizations have against the project. But she says many complaints are due to miscommunication, mainly the thinking that a full-scale Target is coming to the area. Due to lack of space, big retailers like Target are only able to bring in small-scale versions of their stores, she says.
Target is slated to occupy over 20,000-square-feet of the basement of the building, which will also add 100 to 200 much-needed parking spaces. At least two floors of commercial space will sit under residential floors, and while the details continue to change, a dedicated community space is slated to also be built.
“It is a disservice to the community to pretend that the community does not want the retail or those types of services,” Ramos says. “There’s a divide of what the community feels it needs and what the community organizations want.”
The 82nd Street Partnership regularly hosts community cultural events and provides additional trash pickup services in an effort to keep the business district a clean and attractive environment for current and future shoppers. BID’s services are paid as a percentage of property assessments by property owners, who pass on the fee to business owners. Ramos says her organization has hosted visual merchandising sessions with shop owners to help them build window displays that appeal to younger crowds; many of whom, she says, typically go to malls in other communities to shop at large retailers.
“I’d rather have people walk [to Target Express] and pick up things from the small businesses along the way,” Ramos says. “Yes, this is an immigrant community, but even in their own country, upward mobility is about where you shop. The Gap Outlet on the other side of 82nd is doing fantastic.”
Ramos also says that the rise in property taxes is not to be blamed on local development. She cites the rising cost of living as an ongoing issue in New York City, the lack of affordable housing, and the new $15 minimum wage policies slated to take effect by end of 2018—not the development of a sole property.
The project is set to break ground in 2018 with the Target Express taking over the basement by 2019 as part of a 15-year lease.
Developers remain mum about who will occupy the planned community space, how much space will be provided, and which retailer will take over the street-level commercial space. Initially, developers wanted to bring a school to the third floor but Ramos says those plans fizzled and they’re now looking for a nonprofit to occupy the space.
There’s also very little detail about their plans for housing and whether or not affordable housing will be allotted. Calls to the developer’s representatives went unreturned. At this time, they’re looking for a variance to build additional floors on the original plans—a move that will require community board approval and a public hearing before moving forward.
For QNU, it’s key that developers and BID create a transparent process where the community can be involved, members say. They aim to get the attention of public officials before the November election to demand that they are included in the process of future developments in their community.
“Currently, there is no way for the community to intervene,” says Arianna Martinez, a local resident who has volunteered in various campaigns with QNU over the last two years. “The community doesn’t have community control over land.”