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Long Island City, Without Amazon

from the magazine

Long Island City, Without Amazon

Even after the tech giant’s decision not to locate in New York, the Queens neighborhood is ripe for expansion if the city pursues the right policies. Autumn 2019
New York
Economy, finance, and budgets

Over the past four decades, New York City and State, channeling market forces that often confounded their expectations, have overseen a dramatic transformation of the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City. A once-shabby postindustrial landscape is now a forest of high-rise residential and commercial towers, a quick subway trip from Manhattan. This development—and the talent pool of well-educated professionals living in the neighborhood and within a short commute—attracted the tech behemoth Amazon to propose a new headquarters in Long Island City in the fall of 2018, with a goal of creating 25,000 jobs.

As New Yorkers know, Amazon’s plan soon foundered because of local opposition. The long-standing New York practice of handing out large tax breaks to big companies to locate within the city no longer seemed necessary, or even tolerable, in a community that had already seen so much growth in recent decades. Amazon’s February 2019 withdrawal of its proposal didn’t alter the on-the-ground reality: Long Island City is a boomtown. The city’s aim of nurturing a vibrant neighborhood, where New Yorkers can live and work, has succeeded, but future growth isn’t guaranteed. Past zoning reforms in Long Island City have had both beneficial and sometimes less than ideal unintended consequences. Further zoning changes will be necessary for the neighborhood to meet the demand for housing and office space—but post-Amazon, adversarial land-use politics may make those changes tough to enact.

Long Island City, a sprawling area that generally corresponds to zip code 11101 and stretches from Newtown Creek to several blocks north of the Queensboro Bridge, and from the East River to the edges of the Sunnyside residential community, has transformed many times in its history. A fire-insurance map from the early 1900s, shortly after the once-separate municipality became part of New York City, shows a village centered on the Long Island Railroad depot at Second Street and Borden Avenue, from which passengers could transfer to ferries to Manhattan. Industry was scattered on the East River and Newtown Creek waterfronts and next to the railroad tracks through the community.

New York City’s consolidation brought infrastructure improvements that rapidly urbanized Long Island City, and the borough of Queens generally. The Queensboro Bridge opened in 1909, bringing direct road, trolley, and (in 1917) elevated rapid transit service to Queens. In 1910, Long Island Railroad service to Manhattan started, with the opening of the East River tunnels, Penn Station, and Sunnyside Yard. Service got under way in the Steinway (Flushing line) subway tunnel in 1915, followed by additional subway lines. The Queens–Midtown Tunnel opened in 1940, connecting to the Long Island and Brooklyn–Queens Expressways. In 1940, the area south of the Queensboro Bridge had a population of 11,235, according to the census.

This extensive transportation infrastructure made Long Island City a center of manufacturing and distribution for Gotham, while the neighborhood’s residential presence diminished. By 1960, the population south of the bridge was down to 6,921, in 2,176 housing units. The city’s comprehensive 1961 rezoning designated all of Long Island City as a manufacturing zone, with the exception of the Queensbridge public-housing project. The zoning banned new and enlarged residences, and the core of the historic residential community received the least protective zoning designation, allowing heavy manufacturing and open storage right next to housing. A city official who worked on the new zoning described the residential enclave as “a logical area for industrial expansion.” A decade later, a New York City Planning Commission report counted 34,500 “blue-collar industry jobs” in the Long Island City–Astoria area and 26,000 such jobs in the Sunnyside area. By 1969, the commission found only about 2,000 households remaining in the neighborhood south of the Queensboro Bridge. These half-century-old numbers likely represent the area’s industrial high point and residential low point.

In the 1970s, New York City’s manufacturing employment, struck by adverse local and global economic trends, cratered, and Long Island City was hard-hit. As large employers closed or scaled back operations, seeking less expensive locales, the neighborhood grew increasingly blighted. By 1977, local business leaders were pleading with Mayor Abe Beame for extra police protection from gangs of thieves. The early 1980s saw the neighborhood stabilize, however, as artists sought out vacant industrial spaces for low-cost studios.

As the 1980s proceeded, New York began to conceive a different, post-manufacturing future for Long Island City. The Court Square rezoning in 1986, covering three city blocks, launched an effort to create an office-oriented central business district. A 1993 Department of City Planning study proposed rezoning the larger “core” area around Queens Plaza and Court Square, which had the highest density of subway service and numerous redevelopment sites. Replacing the low-density manufacturing zoning in effect since 1961, the new rules would allow office space, as well as residential construction, at much higher-built densities than previously permitted.

The rezoning, which had yet to be adopted, got a boost from a June 2001 report, “Preparing for the Future: A Commercial Development Strategy for New York City,” by the Group of 35, a gathering of New Yorkers organized by Senator Charles Schumer, “dedicated to identifying opportunities for commercial development … to accommodate the increasing space demands of New York City’s growing industries.” The report identified the Far West Side of Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, and Long Island City as the three most promising areas for commercial expansion. The new zoning took effect later that year, as Rudolph Giuliani’s mayoral administration ended. In the next decade, officials thought, Long Island City’s core could see as much as 5 million square feet of office development and 300 new housing units. Streetscape improvements in Queens Plaza and surrounding areas, to make them more pedestrian-friendly, would support the rezoning.

A series of city actions sought to expand residential presence around the core, while preserving Long Island City’s most active industrial areas, too. Back in 1990, the Empire State Development Corporation and the city had already approved the 70-acre Queens West project to redevelop the largely vacant and underused Hunters Point waterfront, mainly with high-rise housing. Other housing-friendly zoning changes—in the Hunters Point area, Hunters Point South, and the Dutch Kills neighborhood—followed over the next two decades, extending into the Michael Bloomberg mayoralty. The cumulative changes effectively created a residential community the size of a small city. Since development ignited in the early 2000s, about 26,600 new housing units have been completed or permitted, according to data from the Long Island City Partnership and New York City Department of Buildings.

“Since development ignited in the early 2000s, about 26,600 new housing units have been completed or permitted.”

The largest number of them, unexpectedly, have sprung up in the core area rezoned in 2001. Intended to become a central business district, dominated by employment-generating companies, not housing, the core has instead become a largely residential area—and far denser than planners anticipated. (Long Island City’s population has grown dramatically from the 25,484 for zip code 11101 recorded by the 2010 census, a figure now way out of date, since most of the new housing has been completed since then.) The 2015 expiration of a state tax-abatement law, designed to boost housing construction, helped spur the residential growth, as property owners, seeking to qualify for the benefits before the cutoff, moved more quickly to build than they likely would have preferred.

Long Island City has also—again, unexpectedly—transformed into a center of tourist accommodation. Until recently, New York City was undersupplied with hotels, relative to its population, business activity, and tourism potential. In 2007, a Department of City Planning study found, the city had 73,692 hotel rooms, of which 6,553 were in the borough of Queens. Over the next decade, the city’s hotel-room inventory expanded by 56 percent—but by 87 percent in Queens. Many of these new Queens hotels sprouted in the Dutch Kills neighborhood, which, until 2008, was zoned for light manufacturing, though the actual land use stayed largely residential; the older zoning nixed housing construction, but hotels were okay, and real-estate developers found a profitable market niche. By 2019, Dutch Kills had more than 1,400 hotel rooms. After the 2008 rezoning, the rate of hotel construction slowed in the area, as developers turned to building housing units. Smaller and more scattered hotel development also took place in other light manufacturing districts in Long Island City and in the core area around Queens Plaza.

Many of the hotels built in Long Island City after 2007 were targeted to tourists with no need for traditional amenities such as meeting rooms and banquet facilities. These limited-service hotels employed few people, who usually weren’t union members. Last year, reportedly at the behest of the New York Hotel Trades Council, New York City enacted restrictions on new hotels in light manufacturing districts, which henceforth will require a special permit. The zoning amendment effectively blocked new limited-service hotels over a large area of Long Island City, since the city council isn’t likely to approve any permit for a nonunion hotel, and such hotels don’t generate the room rates necessary to support union wages and benefits. (New York mayor Bill de Blasio wants to extend this policy citywide.)

Early in the twentieth century, its extensive transportation infrastructure made Long Island City a center of manufacturing, including for automobiles. (BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES)

Similar to what happened with the expiry of the tax-abatement law, the prospect of no longer being able to build hotels in parts of Long Island City led property owners to try to beat the amendment’s deadline, driving a surge in hotel construction. This affected one area especially: the Ravenswood light manufacturing zone, north of the Queensboro Bridge and Queensbridge Houses and west of Dutch Kills. A few limited-service hotels already operated in Ravenswood, but permits have been granted for nearly 3,000 additional hotel rooms. This building spree has (inadvertently) opened up major new job opportunities for residents of the area’s large public-housing projects. But it has also made the area’s legacy manufacturing zoning inappropriate: future land uses will be dominated by hotels and supporting services, such as restaurants and retail.

Long Island City has gained office space—though, once more, not as planners expected. Major examples do exist in the core: 27-01 Queens Plaza North, originally developed with city aid for Metropolitan Life and now serving as JetBlue’s headquarters; the former municipal parking-garage site on Queens Plaza South at Jackson Avenue, sold by the city with a proviso that future development be for offices, and now headquarters for the Department of Health, known as Two Gotham Center; and a nearly completed development called the JACX. The older One Court Square and Two Court Square office buildings arose under the original Court Square plan. Finally, another office building, Court Square Place, opened in the core in the mid-2000s.

With the mostly residential buildout of Long Island City’s core and the neighborhood’s periphery still mostly zoned for manufacturing, the typical urban pattern of a job-heavy core surrounded by residential areas hasn’t applied here. Instead, the jobs form a ring around a dense node of housing, with another outer ring of residences along the East River and in Hunters Point. The office developments outside the core typically represent opportunistic rehabilitations of multistory industrial buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Increasingly, buildings are getting enlarged (where the zoning permits), but ground-up new construction is rare.

In this informal, market-driven evolution of new commercial areas, several locations stand out, including a transit-accessible area just west of the core; south of Sunnyside Yard (now a vast train-storage facility that bisects Long Island City), served by two subway stations; north and east of Queens Plaza, along Northern Boulevard and close to the 36th Street subway station; and in the vicinity of Hunters Point Avenue’s Number 7 subway station. By contrast with this new clustering of office activity around subway stations, the proposed site for Amazon, around Anable Basin and the East River waterfront, represented something of an outlier in its relative distance from subway entrances. To get to the site, workers would have had to traverse, at a minimum, two long blocks on 44th Drive that are a mix of low-scale industrial, commercial, and residential buildings. Still, none of the new concentrations of office investment had the potential to become home for a commercial campus of comparable size.

Despite all the dramatic changes, some parts of Long Island City continue to be actively industrial—particularly areas farther from the subway. By 2017, the same two areas of greater Long Island City that, according to the 1971 Planning Commission report, were home to more than 60,000 blue-collar jobs still had about 36,000 private “industrial” jobs, payroll jobs data compiled by the Department of City Planning show (the descriptive terms cover many similar businesses, such as manufacturing and wholesaling, but the totals aren’t exactly comparable because new definitions were instituted in 2000). Private industrial employment has slowly ebbed in these areas since 2000, but they now boast more than 48,000 private “nonindustrial” jobs, including office-based and other types of service businesses—nearly a doubling since 2000. With the city continuing to gain service jobs, and much of the area’s office space under construction or recently completed and not yet occupied, nonindustrial employment is likely to expand more.

The history of the interaction of government and real-estate markets in Long Island City illustrates several important points. One is that urban “visions,” as promulgated even by well-informed city planners, are limited by both their assumptions and their inability to foretell the future. The drafters of the 1961 zoning reform focused on expanding the stock of modern, horizontally arranged manufacturing space, to accommodate the relocation of businesses out of high-value areas in Manhattan—but by the 1970s, manufacturing was fleeing not just Manhattan but the city. Three decades later, the city’s 1993 study called for a jobs-dense office core in the area between Court Square and Queens Plaza, while preserving low-density industrial areas in Long Island City’s periphery. What the real-estate market wanted—and got—was a high-density bedroom community, a few minutes’ subway commute from Manhattan. With the core largely unavailable because of new residences, the manufacturing-zoned periphery increasingly became a place where the demand for office space would be met.

Another lesson is that the government does not act with consistency of purpose. One part of government often undermines, frequently inadvertently, the efforts of another, as when an expiring state tax abatement accelerated the unplanned residential transformation of Long Island City’s core. Had the incentives been structured differently, property owners might have waited longer to build, and more sites might have been available for future commercial development. The city then would have had the option of encouraging a greater mix of land uses.

A third takeaway: the public sector has consistently underestimated the attraction of Long Island City’s transportation infrastructure and its proximity to midtown Manhattan. Relatively low-cost zoning changes and streetscape improvements have had a striking power to effect positive change in the neighborhood. It’s perhaps not so surprising that many have come to view rich public subsidies as unnecessary to Long Island City’s continued economic growth.

Map by Dolly Holmes

The animosities that the Amazon debacle inflamed will make future land-use discussions more difficult, but New York needs to take steps to secure Long Island City’s long-term prosperity. While the demand for office space in Long Island City hasn’t scaled up as dramatically as the demand for housing, New York’s objective for the neighborhood—to nurture a viable, thriving community for both living and working—remains the right one. And that means more offices. Along with providing space for nonindustrial job growth, Long Island City office development eases subway crowding by keeping neighborhood residents who work locally and commuters from more distant areas of Queens off the often-packed last leg of the trip into Manhattan. Commuters from other boroughs can take advantage of the uncrowded reverse-peak trains.

Without new zoning changes, however, office conversions of formerly industrial buildings will spread farther from transit, forming an undesirable land-use pattern that will increase auto commuting and further erode periphery industrial activity. Even pre-1961, Long Island City was never completely “built out”; these days, many open lots and low-rise buildings are available that could be redeveloped or enlarged as office space. The city needs to permit enough commercial density to allow for new office districts, easily accessible from the subway. As for those subways, most Long Island City stations lack elevators and, in general, need serious upgrades. And pedestrians would benefit from widened sidewalks, better connections across transportation rights of way, and accessibility for the disabled. Street plantings and improved public spaces would make for a more amenable environment for workers. The Montauk Cutoff, an unused Long Island Railroad viaduct south of Sunnyside Yard, is a potentially attractive public space and jumping-off point for a pedestrian/bicycle bridge that could connect the growing office area to the subways at Court Square.

New York City, of course, benefits from growth in its high-productivity economy, and as it gains jobs, it will likely keep gaining population. The highly transit-accessible Long Island City is the right location for new housing. While the current rapid residential growth will doubtless slow, the area will continue to be built out on sites already rezoned for housing. But three areas stand out where rezoning could add residential uses to the currently permitted commercial and industrial activities. One is the former Amazon site itself, including privately owned land around Anable Basin and a city-owned site on the East River, just north. Developing the site for housing can reinforce the existing residential pattern along the East River and offer additional waterfront open space. If office space is also to be part of the mix in this area, the effects on the existing community of heavy pedestrian movement from the Court Square subway complex would need to be considered.

A second area ideal for new housing is the Ravenswood manufacturing zone, which, thanks to its high number of hotels, no longer works as an industrial area. The likely future mix of land uses is compatible with residences, and the 21st Street subway station delivers fast access to Manhattan jobs. The area’s subway and road access to Roosevelt Island, the location of the Cornell Tech campus, is another powerful attraction. Improved subway routing would make the location more attractive still; at present, local trains from Queens don’t stop at 21st Street. In addition, the MTA’s redesign of Queens bus routes, currently under way, needs to establish better links between Ravenswood and the residential areas of Hunters Point South.

A third area is the Long Island City rail yard, the site of the LIRR’s historic Second Street terminal. A developer has proposed rezoning the yard and some adjoining properties it controls to permit new housing, as well as an open space that would connect Hunters Point South to the older Hunters Point residential neighborhood and the Vernon-Jackson subway station.

Service issues will dominate the debates over any rezonings to permit extra housing in Long Island City—above all, the problems of transit crowding and school capacity. In the short to medium term, transit crowding can be eased by installation of upgraded signaling in the subway system, which would enable more frequent peak-hour service, and the purchase of “open-gangway” cars that can hold more passengers. The city has built, or initiated construction on, several new schools in the neighborhood. But more may be required.

In the summer of 2018, New York City launched a master-planning process for development on a platform over Long Island City’s Sunnyside Yard. Such a project would be so costly and challenging from an engineering perspective—it would demand decking over an operating train yard with few locations for support columns, for starters—that it should wait until all the easier development options in Long Island City have been exhausted and land for new buildings is at a premium.

Long Island City exemplifies at once the power of zoning and policymaking to unleash the economic potential of New York City’s neighborhoods and the limits of planning control over land-use change. The coming years are almost certain to feature mounting pressure to specify precisely the parameters of future development, at the cost of time, flexibility, and the ability of developers to respond to marketplace signals. The city should push for predictable, workable zoning that lets Long Island City continue to flourish—and grow.

Top Photo: Amazon was attracted to Long Island City because of its ample space and educated talent pool, but local opposition squelched the company’s plan to build a second headquarters there. (WANG YING/XINHUA/ALAMY LIVE NEWS)

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