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For the Bruson Building, think big

By Joseph Heathcott

It is not every day that renovating a building presents a major opportunity for an entire community. But the effort by the Joseph Bruno Trust to bring back the fire-damaged Bruson Building in Jackson Heights is just that — a moment rife with possibility.

However, a recent issue of DNAinfo (Dec 4) reported that the Bruno Trust hopes to fill the building with “large chains, from restaurants to banks … Popeye’s, McDonald’s, Burger King.” As both a resident of Jackson Heights and a professor of urban policy, I encourage the Bruno Trust to think much bigger than that. Now is the time to put aside short-term schemes in favor of big plans with long-term impact. The Bruson Building has the potential to become the undisputed hub of community life.

Jackson Heights is one of the most unique and exciting neighborhoods in America. It is among the most diverse urban communities in the country, if not the world. Successive waves of immigrant groups have made their mark in the wide variety of businesses, services, languages, and civic and religious institutions. The large number of local, family-run enterprises attests to the hard work, dedication, and rootedness of people in the neighborhood. It is this diverse social and economic mix that gives Jackson Heights its enviable vitality.

At the same time, neighborhoods are fragile things. While we certainly want to encourage meaningful change, it is nevertheless important that we do so with respect to the complex social and economic mix of the area. Large chains often overrun unique neighborhoods with bland, homogeneous businesses owned by remote corporations with little interest in the needs of the community.

Over the last 10 years, there has been a rapid increase in the number of commercial chains in Jackson Heights, particularly fast food restaurants, banks, pharmacies, and supermarkets. Were these only a small part of the overall mix, the exceptional character of the neighborhood might survive, but the proportion of chain stores has increased dramatically. To encourage the proliferation of large chains, therefore, contravenes everything we know about what makes communities strong, viable, and attractive over the long term.

So how can the Bruson Building become a true neighborhood hub? Here are a few ideas:

• To generate revenue, the first floor could feature an expansive delicatessen and prepared food market, or similar operation. While there are plenty of supermarkets, green grocers, and restaurants in Jackson Heights, there is a real need for a good full-spectrum deli. This could be open to one owner or to a kiosk system with a mix of vendors.

• The first floor could also provide space for a community wellness center and gym. There is a substantial need for physical fitness and public health opportunities in the neighborhood, and residents would surely pay for the convenience of a nearby facility. Doctors and allied health professionals could locate offices here, too, as well as health-related nonprofit organizations.

• The second floor could incorporate an “enterprise center” in the form of a small business incubator. The incubator could provide desks or office spaces for individual start-ups, coupled with shared facilities such as meeting rooms, utilities and communications, printers, copiers, kitchen, and other equipment. Colleges could offer business and management courses on site. More established businesses could locate on the floor as well, providing much-needed mentorship to new enterprises.

• The third floor could house a “United Nations” language school for English instruction as well as foreign language learning, coupled with immigrant service organizations. This would be perfectly in keeping with the character of Jackson Heights in particular, and Queens more generally. The school could be operated by a local organization or perhaps one of the community college systems (CUNY, LaGuardia, SUNY/Empire State).

• In addition to revenue-generating offices for professionals and businesses, the fourth floor could feature a few key community facilities, such as a radio station, rentable meeting spaces, and a small auditorium for events, panels, debates, and cultural performances.

• All of the floors could feature gallery spaces in hallways, stairwells, and foyers to showcase the work of diverse Queens-based artists in a wide array of media, from photography and painting to textiles, sculpture, printing, video, and graphic arts. These are just a few ideas for enterprises that would bring notice to the Bruson Building and the Bruno Trust. If the owners can agree to renovating the building consistent with the character and vitality of Jackson Heights, they will go a long way to create a lasting legacy for generations to come.

Joseph Heathcott is the president of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of the American Planning Association. Heathcott also is an associate professor of Urban Studies at the School for Public Engagement at The New New School

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