Smorgasburg comes to Center Blvd

The Waterfront Master Plan was unveiled by the developers last week at a Community Board meeting according to the LIC Post. The details are a little hazy, but big picture they are asking to build up to 12 million square feet comprised of 30 to 60 story towers and a 50/50 split between commercial and residential usage.

In return for this request the developers have offered space for three schools and half a million square feet for arts and culture and similar uses. The proposal will also use a quarter of the total 28 acres for open space and include a pedestrian/bike bridge over Anable Basin at 5th Street.

While a rendering and some explanations were given with the presentation to the Community Board, I’m going to try to break it down more concretely so readers in Long Island City can better visualize the proposal. First of all is the size of the request: The Citi Tower in Court Square is 1.4 million square feet, thus 12 million square feet is the equivalent of 8.5 Citi Towers.

The second is “Why are they making the request?” The area is now zoned at a much lower density (height), some of which may or may not even allow residential development, and not currently very attractive for say an isolated 10-story office building if that is allowed. So at its heart the request by the developers is to ask the city to change the current zoning on the property to make their land instantly more valuable. I say instantly because the day the government grants their request any one of the landowners could turn around and sell the newly upzoned property for more than it was worth the day before. A lot more.

Despite my bluntness, a request such as this is in no way unprecedented and has been going on in NYC probably since the day after Peter Stuyvesant purchased Manhattan Island. And there is some rationale for allowing zoning changes such as this, including the reality that times change and there’s a need for new uses for the land, development is a natural occurrence in a growing city and there needs to be some give and take, and development in general is part of economic development, in both the short run vis-a-vis construction jobs, and the long run in terms of new businesses, attractions, population growth, and taxes.

Rather than just hand a bag of money to the developers at their behest, the city usually asks for some concessions in return – such as affordable housing and space for schools or the community, etc. – and may scale back the size to some degree.

So the request is for eight Citi towers1, therefore if the previous as-of right was two Citi Towers it would be a quadrupling of buildable space, and if it was four towers a doubling2. My guess is the land’s value rises in a similar fashion upon approval.

As for the three schools, if you’re adding four additional Citi Towers of people to the neighborhood, I guess you could say it’s the city’s responsibility to provide school seats for your new residents …aha ha ha. And the seven acres of open space is kind of what is needed to accommodate the commercial and residential tenants you are looking to attract and have them pay you more. As far as Hunters Point goes it’s bringing sand to the beach: there are enough plazas and esplanades along the waterfront already. A bridge over Anable Basin? It’s nice, but let’s be realistic its construction would be first and foremost to string the new far-off properties into the center of Hunters Point and act as a quicker pathway to/from the northern ferry landing, and a more appealing pathway to the Vernon Jackson subway station. So pardon me for dismissing these three items as predominantly necessities for prospective new tenants.

Which brings us to the 500k square feet of arts/cultural space. Like a lot of this proposal it’s very vague. What is most clearly missing is a recreation center with a swimming pool for the neighborhood. A 44k square foot YMCA built in The Rockaways in 2013 holds the largest Aquatic Center of all 24 Y’s in NYC. 44k out of 500k is not a big give up, but it is the size that is now needed given all the additional residents and office tenants these towers will be bringing. MoMA PS1 is 125k square feet – why do we need four more? Go ask it out on the street, For or Against: taking 44k square feet out of half a mil for a rec center with maple flooring and two mega pools?

Which brings us to the whole listening tour billed as YourLIC. Quite frankly I didn’t have time to attend any of the meetings in person, and it’s my belief that a large portion of the attendees had a lot of time on their hands or were looking for a free meal. Or were squeaky wheels. But from everything I read about the meetings they didn’t appear very representative of the typical Hunters Point resident. Not that it really mattered, I think the proposal agenda was pre-set anyway and it was just a dog & pony show. I find it especially ironic that one of the few salient details included in the LIC Post article was the bike/pedestrian bridge across Anable Basin. Who requested that?

As for the request to build 12 million square feet, I view it more like a starting point. I mean if the city just came back and said “Approved as is” the owners of the properties would probably harangue (or fire) their leader for not asking for 11 or 14 Citi Towers. Or maybe the process is completely haphazard and 8.5 Citi Towers is the developers way of anchoring both the city and the public’s mind: Ask for 8.5 be content with 5.5 and thrilled if the city comes back with 7. Even 5.5 equates to a lot more money than my hypothetical 2 or 4 as-of right currently.

Either way, by the look of the sole rendering proffered the only way the developers could have reasonably added more square footage than requested would be by going higher, as the proposal could not be more dense with towers. And in a first for the neighborhood, these towers would extend east of 5th Street and all the way onto Vernon. Even prior to the term ‘social distancing’ the densification appears extreme.

A construction timeline shared at the Community Board meeting was 10-15 years, which in tandem with the 50/50 residential/commercial split come across as placeholders for the benefit of the developers, giving them a lot of flexibility to adjust to the market, yet adding to the vagueness of the proposal. A little leeway is certainly understandable, but this feels like an attempt at carte blanche.3

All in all, when I look at the Waterfront Master Proposal, I can’t help but think that it’s still four different developers each with their own needs and not very focused on the big picture.4 In comparison Amazon HQ2 was a once in a lifetime shot that had the potential to completely transform LIC and Queens, and not just from a real estate perspective. Thus it was worthy of significant upzoning. This proposal is a straightforward request for a big bag of money. Long Island City deserves its share – on its terms! And maybe we trim the size of that bag too, it seems so 2019?

Developers Unveil Big Plans For LIC Waterfront, Up To 12 Million Square Feet Planned

A New YMCA, With A Massive Aquatic Center, Is Set To Open In The Rockaways“Two boys were peering through the window and then they high-fived each other,” said Lund, the CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York, “That was all I needed.”

Newly Opened Rockaway YMCA To Boost Local Economy“This new Y is not only bringing vital programs and services to the people of the Rockaways, but it is creating jobs and helping to sustain economic development in the area.”

Public Discourse On Public Space In LICone of the YourLIC meetings

  1. 8.5 net of <.5 for community/cultural space []
  2. I understand that the TF parcels as-of right are already on city property, and I believe Lake Vernon just north of it may have as-of right of two 30-story towers []
  3. really, who’s going to have the will to question the ratio or timeline in 5 years were a rationale given to make it all residential []
  4. Or maybe I should say 3 different landowners, as TF Cornerstone is building on city land and thus more flexible []

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