Thirteen months after the Bloomberg administration announced an ambitious plan to remake 24 acres of Long Island City’s waterfront into a haven for middle-income New Yorkers, no money has changed hands – and the proposal’s initial selling point has taken on a far more modest tone.
In October 2006, the city announced plans to buy the largely vacant site from the Port Authority, and to turn the area into what would amount to an enclave on the East River for cops, firefighters, teachers, and other middle-income workers who are getting financially squeezed out of the real estate market in New York City.
The plan would have in effect reshaped the area, providing for as many as six high rises ranging from 250 to 400 feet tall and, possibly, another four to seven buildings ranging from 40 to 120 feet in height.
The sale was approved by the Port Authority at the time, but the deal is still not finalized – and the project, which is known as Hunters Point South, has many more hurdles to clear, including required land use approvals and the selection of a developer.
If the project is further delayed, it could put a wrinkle in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s larger affordable housing plans.
“I would like to see the pace pick up,” said New York City Council member Eric Gioia, whose district includes the development. “The city has long promised this area a school and a library. There will also have to be improvements to the 7 line and the addition of water taxis. And, I’m frustrated that it isn’t moving forward.”
According to the Economic Development Corporation, the city is conducting a draft environmental impact study on the land and expects to enter into the required land use approval process in the summer of 2008. City officials say the deal with the Port Authority should be finalized soon.
In May, The New York Times reported that the Real Estate Board of New York wanted to convene some of the biggest city developers to form a non-profit entity to build the development. But the idea sparked opposition from community advocates and elected officials who said the city should not be turning over the land to the group and that it needed to be more open with the process.
Opposition has centered on fears of overcrowding and a lack of commercial amenities, transportation infrastructure, and plans for dealing with the pollution residue from Newtown Creek. All parking for the new project must be above ground, since the site lies below the water table.
Stephen Ross, REBNY’s chairman and head of the Related Companies, spearheaded the idea of a public-private partnership. And, REBNY officials say their only intention is to help build more affordable housing. They also note that no deals have been made.
“There are community suspicions, but our members are putting forth a pro bono effort to employ experts who can follow the city’s lead and help define the scope of the project and keep construction keep costs down,” said Steven Spinola, president of the trade group. “We have gone over initial site plans and construction layouts and we continue to talk on a regular basis. It’s something we don’t normally do, but our members believe they ought to contribute to easing the housing shortage.”
Meanwhile, the tentative blueprint for the project – which is part of the mayor’s larger $7.5 billion plan to build and preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2013 – has changed significantly since it was announced in 2006.
While the mayor never officially committed to earmarking a certain number of units to affordable housing, he initially suggested that middle income renters could qualify for all 5,000 units. Bloomberg called it a “landmark moment in affordable housing,” and said it would provide housing for the middle-income earners who are the “real backbone of our city.”
But, the proposal now calls for 40 percent of the apartments to rent at market rate and the remaining 60 percent to be reserved for families of four making between $50,000 to $145,000 a year, with rent set at 25 percent of pre-tax income. In addition to housing, it will also include commercial space, a new school, and up to 10 acres of parkland.
Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, criticized the city for suggesting it would reserve the entire development for middle-income housing and then backpedaling.
He and others have also publicly blasted the city’s proposal to finance the project with federal tax-exempt bonds. They say the city should not be able to access that perk if it is not providing low-income housing. City officials note that the financing mechanism may offer a creative way to tap into scarce resources and that they are still looking at other financing options.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the EDC, Janel Patterson, denied the city ever made a commitment to devote the entire project to middle-income housing.
But, the city’s news release dated October 19, 2006, notes that “up to 5,000 units” of housing primarily designed for that purpose is “expected to be developed.”
“The mayor said he would make as much of the project affordable as possible,” Patterson said.
While many affordable housing advocates praised the city for seizing the chance to turn a long-fallow site into a dedicated middle-income community, there have been protesters on both sides. Some questioned whether the Port Authority could get more money for the site by putting it out to bid, while others said the income standards were too high for average Queens families.
A complicated history
The site’s history is long and controversial. Hunters Point South, targeted for revitalization since Governor Mario Cuomo was in office decades ago, is part of the Queens West development, stretching from Newtown Creek to the canal north of 46th Avenue.
A.J. Carter, a spokesman at the New York State Empire State Development Corporation, said the state’s portion, which lies north of 50th Avenue, is about halfway complete and will cost between $1.5 and $1.8 billion.
The city, which controls the rest, never put forth a plan until the Bloomberg administration, as part of its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, proposed turning it into an Olympic village. When those plans were dashed, officials went back to the drawing board.
The 30-acre Hunters Point South project, also known as Queens West South at one point, includes the 24-acre parcel to be used for middle-income housing. It sits along the East River with spectacular views of Manhattan. To the east the parcel is bounded by 2nd Street, which city planners envision becoming a bustling shopping strip.
Since development began in the late 1990s in the northern portion of Queens West, five luxury skyscrapers have been built along the East River’s edge. Another is under construction. The finished buildings, which have been derided by some community activists for their tombstone-like appearance, include the Rockrose Development Corporation’s East Coast project, two complexes by the AvalonBay real estate group, and the Citylights cond-op building, which opened in 1997. Another five high-rises, along with a school and a library, are scheduled for completion by 2014, Carter said.
All told, those buildings will add 4,850 apartments to the area – and that is not the only construction in the vicinity. Across the street from the Hunters Point South site, the Powerhouse condo project is underway, as is work on a venting station for the Amtrak tunnel into Penn Station. A privately-owned 7.5 acre parcel nearby, which is now occupied by several businesses, including a beer distributor, may also become home to 1,500 market-rate apartments. Many other smaller-scale projects are under way in the area, said Carter.
Some predict that the affordable housing component will shrink again before the shovels are in the ground because waterfront land has become so valuable citywide.
“If done correctly, waterfront property like this could be worth a fortune,” said Paul Graziano, an independent planning consultant who has advised several council members. “What will probably happen is that during the next administration, there will be an upturn in real estate, they’ll sell it to the highest bidder and the percentage of affordable housing will shrink.”
He pointed out that other major projects have gone through severe changes before being built. “Battery Park City was supposed to be one-third low income, one-third middle class and one-third luxury and when it all got thrown out the window, no one made a peep,” he said. “The same thing happened in Williamsburg, where they offered incentives to build affordable housing and there’s not a lick being built.”