The Manhattan Institute’s
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

Rezoning Hunters Point

Julia Vitullo-Martin, July 2004

Few neighborhoods do a better job of displaying to the naked eye the wreckage of New York's industrial past and the contradictions of New York's post-industrial future than Long Island City, Queens. The luxury towers, for example, rising on the Hunters Point waterfront, directly across from midtown Manhattan, stand in contrast to the decaying inland jumble of light industrial uses, contract office space, small wooden-frame houses, and converted lofts. The decay exists because the area has not been allowed to develop naturally - or even upgrade - since 1961, when city government revised the zoning code to mandate an industrial future for Hunters Point.

Nonetheless, New Yorkers in search of space are a determined lot, and many printers, bakers, small manufacturers, consultants, architects, and artists have moved into the old industrial buildings - some illegally. While hip new bars and restaurants have followed, Hunters Point remains distinctly "industrial in landscape and melancholy in personality," laments the Village Voice. City Planning is hoping to change that with its bold rezoning plan.

REZONING

Long Island City has long been heralded as New York’s next major central business district, and most of City Planning's current rezoning proposals for achieving this are good. Their idea is to "facilitate commercial development at increased densities and allow new residences to mix with commercial and light industrial businesses," while taking advantage of Long Island City's excellent mass transit (8 subway lines) and its "supply of large, underdeveloped properties." Existing low-density light manufacturing zones will be replaced by higher-density, mixed commercial and residential zones to allow as-of-right developments, including office buildings. (Click on the Department of City Planning map below to enlarge current land-use details.)

Land-use in Hunters Point

Large, undeveloped properties encompassing some 50,000 square feet exist in part because zoning had made them unmarketable. Zoning is one of local government's basic means of redistributing wealth, conferring riches on some property owners while withholding development rights from others. The favored few are permitted to develop their land to its highest and best use, while others are severely restricted. Property that is zoned incorrectly - confined to a use that is no longer economic - may become virtually useless, preventing owners from responding flexibly to market changes.

Rezoning underused land, which the Bloomberg administration has rightly made a priority in the boroughs, corrects some old injustices but nearly always introduces new ones. Property that can be developed to 10 stories becomes worth far more than adjacent property developable to only 4 stories. Even more serious from the point of view of the 4-story property owner, the smaller-scale blocks may well lose value as they become overwhelmed by their large neighbors. They end up with the worst of two worlds: less valuable property but without the charm and peace of the usual low-rise, residential neighborhood.

Almost everyone agrees that high-density, mixed-use development is appropriate for Hunters Point, which is well-served by mass transit and major roads - though poorly served by schools and completely lacking in supermarkets. The question is: how much density and on which blocks? And what happens to the midblocks that get left behind, engulfed by high-density but trapped in low-density zoning?

CITY PLANNING'S PROPOSALS

The 37-square-block area to be rezoned lies at the eastern end of the Queensboro Bridge, bordered roughly by 23rd Street on the west, 41st Avenue on the north, and the Sunnyside Yards on the east. The rezoning adds 34 blocks to the 3 blocks at Court Square that were rezoned for high-density development in 1986, allowing the construction of the 1.25 million square-foot Citibank office tower. Opened in 1989, Citibank (now Citicorp) stood as a 48-story beacon that failed, until very recently, to attract any other development. That's changing fast. While renovating its Manhattan space, the Museum of Modern Art, for example, has temporarily relocated nearby, joining P.S. 1, the Socrates Sculpture Garden, and the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company is erecting a 404,000-square-foot building to house some 2,000 employees now working in Manhattan. Citicorp is itself putting up a new building across the street from its first, which remains the largest New York building outside Manhattan.

Proposed rezoning

Consisting of Hunters Point, Court Square, and Queens Plaza sub-districts, the new Special Long Island City Mixed Use District anticipates about 5 million square feet of new office development and 300 new housing units plus retail and institutional development. Residential districts will be paired with manufacturing districts in four areas, allowing development of 10 to 12 story buildings in some manufacturing areas, and 4 to 7 in others.

Much of this is based on admirable principles, including as-of-right development of most light manufacturing, commercial, and residential uses. Certainly City Planning is correct to urge high-density, tall residential development at Queens Plaza and Court Square, which are served by two transit hubs and are now marred by many large vacant or underused sites. And certainly John Young, the director of City Planning’s Queens office, is right to predict that rezoning will produce an “upturn” in the market. Richard Maltz, chairman of Griener-Maltz, an industrial and commercial broker active in Queens, told the New York Times that a typical 10,000-square-foot factory building in the area now sells for $120 to $140 a square foot, or $1.2 million to $1.4 million. But a builder who can put up a 30,000-square-foot residential tower on the same site will find that the value of his property has nearly doubled to between $2.1 million and $2.5 million.

What's troublesome, though, is City Planning's insistence that it is protecting the neighborhood by maintaining the low density of the mid-blocks that now have small row houses and factories. With the exception of the one tiny historic district of Italianate row houses on 45th Avenue, these low-density blocks have almost no economic future for their current character. Despite their funky appeal, the wood-frame houses tend to have old-fashioned lay-outs - often railroad flats - and inadequate plumbing. Many have been poorly maintained, in part because financing has been almost impossible to obtain to rehabilitate a house in a manufacturing zone.

John Malloy, a property owner and life-long resident of Hunters Point, is most worried about the fate of the midblocks on either side of Vernon Boulevard between 48th avenue and 47th avenue. "The only way to protect us is to allow us to equitably develop our own properties," he argues. "We've been given the lowest zoning in all of Long Island City, which permits us only to build to four stories. Yet in the name of saving industry, City Planning is permitting high-rise development in the areas that are primarily industrial." He emphasizes that he and his neighbors are not against development, "which is in the interest of everyone," but "we don't want stagnation." He also objects to the ban on midblock commercial use, since that means no restaurants or coffee shops.

It's hard to see what's wrong with his position. City Planning should agree to take another look at the restrictions imposed on midblock development. Malloy contends that in the near future "somebody will jump over the Fifth Street border," which divides Queens West’s luxury towers from the inland low-rise factories and houses, "and develop this property, after the city has long since forced us out."

MANUFACTURING JOBS

City Planning’s 2002 in-depth survey of all industrial uses and employment in Hunters Point found some 3,300 industrially classified jobs in 90 firms. But industry is clearly on the decline in Hunters Point itself, though Long Island City as a whole retains roughly 27,000 industrial jobs. Adam Friedman, director of the New York Industrial Retention Network, a citywide economic development organization that advocates for manufacturers, believes that while New York lost many jobs to lower production costs overseas, most of Long Island City's remaining industrial jobs are with firms that are committed to being in New York. "The city is right to want to increase housing and density in some areas, but the question is how to target that development without having a negative impact on jobs in adjacent areas. Yes, we need a new office district and we need to upzone in this area, but we also need to increase protections elsewhere. As one manufacturer told us: we want to stay in New York, so just tell us where to go, where there's some stability. We'll play by the rules, but we have to know what they are." Firms in Hunters Point include jewelry makers, wholesale bakers, theatrical equipment assemblers, woodworkers, and metal platers.

Friedman's group is urging the city to create an Industrial Employment District, much like Chicago's Planned Manufacturing Districts, which restrict as-of-right uses to those involving the production, assembly, storage or transportation of physical goods. Other uses would require special permits. This solution, however, might in practice be a return to the old, centrally planned zoning that so injured industrial districts to begin with. Government has not proved itself to be a good arbiter of which uses should be permitted and which forbidden.

WHAT’S NEXT

The City Planning Commission is in the midst of its public review process on the proposals. It approved the application for zoning map and text amendments on June 23, 2004, and sent the package to the City Council, which must respond in late August.


July 2004
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“With the exception of niche industries, the industrial base will be substantially made up of service, commercial, and distribution companies. While little will be manufactured in Queens, food products and consumables will continue to be distributed out of local warehouses. Service providers such as elevator maintenance companies and limo garages will continue to call Queens their home. However, Long Island City will come to resemble the West Side of Manhattan from the 20s through the 40s.”
John Maltz, Griener-Maltz Real Estate
 
“We want to be able to develop our property ourselves and secure our presence in this community by having moderate development rights.”
John Malloy, Hunters Point homeowner