Long Island City residents balk at city’s plan to develop 1.5 million square feet on the waterfront

Photo courtesy of TF Cornerstone

In July, a plan was unveiled to transform two city-owned lots in Long Island City into a 1.5-million-square-foot development with housing, a school and office and artist space.

Though officials touted the project as something that would bring “good, middle-class jobs” and a “state-of-the-art” school to the neighborhood, people are skeptical. At a Community Board 2 meeting in Sunnyside on Sept. 7, a handful of residents railed against the project and asked that the city scrap it.

The Economic Development Corporation called the proposal “the first of its kind industrial-commercial-residential project.” Mixed-income housing would accommodate middle-class residents and families, the new school would absorb the influx of families with children and the office and artist space would help preserve businesses that felt they could not afford rising rents.

Located along the waterfront at 44th Drive, the lots currently house a a parking lot for the Department of Transportation and a Department of Education facility. TF Cornerstone, a developer with several buildings in Long Island City, was chosen to build the housing portion of the project.

A recent report found that Long Island City topped the list of 50 neighborhoods with the most new rentals from 2010 through 2016 and greatly surpassed the next neighborhood on the list, Downtown Los Angeles. This construction boom, along with the lack of additional infrastructure like schools, transportation and green space has worried residents.

Nick Velkor has owned Yoga Agora, a yoga studio at 33-02 Broadway, for six and a half years. Yoga Agora is a sliding scale studio, which means that lower- and middle-income individuals pay less for services. Velkor said at the Sept. 7 Board 2 meeting that he has witnessed “the very rapid displacement” of his clients because they cannot afford to pay rent.

“When I see this ridiculous idea of TF Cornerstone building on city-owned land, I’ve become increasingly convinced that this city is willfully ignoring the needs of low- and middle-income people,” he said. “This is city-owned land. We have enough pandering to the one percent. Let’s have human decency to start checking in with low- and middle- income people by bringing in nonprofit developers and community organizers to lead this plan.”

At least 1,000 units will be built on the site and 25 percent are slated to become affordable housing.

The lots are located along the waterfront and some residents are arguing that developing such a large project near the water is not responsible, especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged parts of the city in 2012, and Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

Danielle Luscombe has lived in Long Island City for 12 years. She attended the meeting with her 7-year-old daughter, Lucy, to argue that building a school within a hurricane evacuation zone is “the wrong thing to do.”

“Ever since the floods in Houston, my daughter has been terrified every night before bed about the idea of her neighborhood flooding,” she said. “I have to explain to her that we are safe and nothing bad can happen here, but then I start to wonder.”

She cited a New York City Panel on Climate Change study, which predicted that sea levels, precipitation and temperatures will continue to rise in the coming decades.

“Why place our children in another school built in a flood zone?” Luscombe said. “Maybe Lucy is right to be afraid. I agree that there is a desperate need for schools, but building along the waterfront is the wrong thing to do.”

In total, eight residents spoke out against the project, arguing that the neighborhood did not need additional luxury apartments and expressing skepticism about how affordable the office and artist spaces would really be.

Lisa Ann Deller, the Board 2 Land Use Committee chair, said that the EDC only had one meeting with the board to discuss the project and that the agency argued that sharing any plans with the community would “jeopardize the negotiation with developers” if it leaked to the public.

She also expressed concerns with the development and encouraged local community groups to vocalize their opposition. The project is about two years away from starting construction since it requires a zoning change, which gives Long Island City residents time to negotiate with the city, she said.

“The community board can’t do it alone,” Deller said. “We need a lot of noise. We need noise from LIC Coalition, we need noise from all the housing advocacy groups because we’ll get nothing if you don’t turn up the noise.”

She added that the Community Board would send a letter to the EDC outlining its concerns.

A spokesperson for the EDC said employees have begun talks with community stakeholders and would continue to do so throughout the process.

“This project is in the preliminary stages of planning and is required to undergo environmental review and public approvals, in which community residents and stakeholders will be able to share their input,” the spokesperson said. “We have already commenced meetings with community stakeholders and look forward to continuing the discussion with them. We’re invested in bringing jobs and workforce development back to Long Island City’s waterfront within a truly mixed-use community.”