Amazon may not be building a new home in Queens, New York, but the resistance is. Three stories and a basement adding up to 24,000 square feet of classrooms, offices, a commercial kitchen, creative workspace and a terraced indoor plaza will soon rise among the street vendors, bodegas, and restaurants serving cuisines from at least 25 cultures along the bustling Roosevelt Avenue corridor in Queens.
Make the Road New York and its 23,000 members have been behind some of the most prominent — and successful — protest actions of the past few years, from resisting Trump’s Muslim travel ban, to protecting the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) work permit program for people who came to the U.S. undocumented as children, to, most recently, opposing Amazon’s decision to build a second headquarters in Queens. The new Roosevelt Avenue facility will be the first property Make the Road New York has owned, designed and built from the ground up.
“It was very hard to find a space big enough that does everything we need it to do,” says Antonia Genao, director of operations at Make the Road New York. “The spaces didn’t exist or if they did, it was going to be a rent that we can’t pay. But we knew we had outgrown our current Queens headquarters. When our copy room became an office, it was time to move out.”
The decision to build a home came back in 2015. Make the Road New York expects to finish construction and open its doors in 2020.
“It’s kind of a miracle how any nonprofits find space,” says Julie Miles, director of development and communications at Make the Road New York. “It’s a lot of pieces you have to line up. So much of that is way harder than it should be.”
Even with the organization’s first-ever capital campaign, as well as the prospect of some funding from the city and the state, Make the Road New York’s board — half of which are elected from its membership — needed to decide that the organization would take on some debt to make it all possible.
After crunching the numbers, given rising commercial rents in Queens, Make the Road New York calculated that by giving up their current headquarters and two other satellite offices, they could be paying the same monthly amount on construction loans as they had been paying in rent and other duplicate costs across the three spaces (they will keep another current satellite office open in Brooklyn).
Ultimately, they’ll have more square footage at the new facility than they’re giving up at the three offices they’re consolidating — enabling Make the Road New York to potentially double the volume of legal aid, public health, educational and other services it provides to its members.
In the past, “we have ended up declining money or not applying for money because we don’t have space for that programming,” Miles says.
And then Make the Road needed to secure a site. For logistic as well as symbolic reasons, it needed to be along Roosevelt Avenue. If Queens and its one million foreign-born residents — half its population — is the heart of the resistance to xenophobia, racist policies and corporate dominance of the economy, Roosevelt Avenue and the 7 train subway that runs above it is the coronary artery that keeps the heart alive. When Make the Road found the vacant land just a few steps from busy Corona Plaza along Roosevelt, they could hardly believe it.
“There was nothing there,” Genao says. “Nobody even believed it existed.”
Miles scrambled to cobble together some cash reserves and leaned on some long-time donors to make a nominal deposit for the owner to take the site off the market for six months. That would give the organization time to apply to the city for capital funding — which requires a site to be secured before applying. Once they found out their application to the city was approved, for $5.6 million, that unlocked an acquisition loan (which they got from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s NYC office) to finally acquire the site in August 2016, for $4.98 million.
With the site acquired, Make the Road New York could go ahead with the design process. Working with Hester Street Collaborative, they interviewed a number of architecture firms and selected Ten Arquitectos, based in Mexico City but with an office and more than a few projects in New York City. The architecture firm began by interviewing staff at every Make the Road New York office in Queens and Brooklyn — even those that weren’t going to be located in the new facility. Then the nonprofit invited more than 100 of its most active members in Queens and Brooklyn to a design charrette with the architecture firm. With support from Hester Street, they split up members into small discussion groups, each with a representative from Make the Road New York’s leadership team and from the architecture firm.
“I oversee the administrative department at all the sites, so I thought I had the insight to what members liked and what members experienced, but listening to them … the stuff that Make the Road symbolized to them and the things that they brought up [that were] missing in the Queens community, some of it was pretty surprising,” Genao says. “They wanted space within the building where they could engage in extended conversations… after meetings. I didn’t know they didn’t feel like they have that space already, but when they said it, I was like, ‘They really don’t.’ They don’t really have a space where they could just chill.”
That eventually inspired the grand staircase, a terraced indoor plaza that flows out into the sidewalk in front of the future building, just a few steps from the outdoor Corona Plaza. For Genao, whose job includes responsibility for physical safety and security at Make the Road New York’s facilities, it’s scary and exciting at the same time.
“It’s kind of scary, for me, every time I walk by here, I think about those steps just being open to the public…so when I think about it I think …people are gonna, like, move in to the office,” she says. “But it’s also exciting to be able to provide them with that space.”
(Courtesy Make the Road NY; Ten Arquitectos)
Another surprise was the desire for a creative space, where members could work on large banners or other projects and not have to worry about taking away meeting or classroom space.
“Our members have all these great ideas, things they want to create for marches and rallies, but we don’t really have the space to offer regularly,” Genao says.
Some needs were more obvious. Make the Road had built a small kitchen at its current headquarters, about ten blocks away in a former Blockbuster store. On days when there is a big action planned, for which every community organizer knows there must be a meal provided, members typically have to start cooking in the wee hours of the morning.
“Four in the morning,” Genao says. “To us it’s so normal, because they have to put four pans of rice on, four trays of beans.”
Which is why the new headquarters will include a commercial kitchen in the basement, with a dumbwaiter to bring food up to the main gathering spaces.
The conversations with the membership pushed the design far past what Make the Road New York had originally anticipated. Their original plan called for a 15,000-square-foot building, but now it would need to be 24,000 square feet. They’d need to raise additional funds from their capital campaign, and now, in addition to loans for construction, they turned to the federal New Markets Tax Credit program.
Thanks to the New Markets Tax Credits, they were able to keep the same level of debt they planned to take on initially. But it wasn’t easy. The U.S. Treasury awards a limited amount of New Markets Tax Credit allocations annually, currently $3.5 billion a year, to entities it has previously certified as “community development entities” or CDEs. The CDEs compete every year for a slice of the pie. Some of the CDEs that were originally interested in financing Make the Road New York’s new home didn’t get an allocation last year.
It ends up being a bit of a matchmaking game, with some CDEs prioritizing certain geographies or certain types of projects. Ultimately, three CDEs signed on for Make the Road New York: Puerto Rico-based Banco Popular, the New York City Regional Center, and the Nonprofit Finance Fund — which also served as the lead mortgage lender on the transaction.
“I think even in New York a lot of the immigrants are in shadows and the beautiful spaces are usually reserved for those with means,” says Brenda Loya, who was born and raised in El Paso and is now the east coast director at Nonprofit Finance Fund. “Just being able to offer a space like this for this community was meaningful. As a Chicana now in New York City and in the finance world, these are the types of projects that move a lot of people like me.”
It didn’t end with finding the CDEs. What followed were three months of long, intense meetings and phone calls, responding to estimates and bids from general contractors, going over progress on the capital campaign side. It’s almost always a bank that actually “buys” the tax credits, for the sake of credit under the Community Reinvestment Act. In this case it was PNC, so now they’re involved in these meetings, too. This is the part where some elements start to get cut out of the project because of cost. In this case, Make the Road had to give up on a roof garden, remove some glass from the final design, and leave some floors and ceilings unfinished.
“Our highest priority is the functionality of the building and the durability but the architects had these pretty incredible visions that would be awesome to have,” Miles says.
The grand total for the project was $28.6 million, including a bridge loan from Boston-based BlueHub Capital and a second mortgage from D.C. metro area-based Capital Impact Partners. Finally, in February 2019, the groundbreaking — but that was for the politicians.
“Right now what we’re planning is to have a ‘time-capsule’ moment where once again we re-engage the membership in the initial phases of building the actual building so they can kind of plant their own tiny seed inside one of the walls,” Genao says. “I think that will be the kickoff to construction.”
They’re thinking they’ll cut out the time capsule in a few decades to remember what it was like today.
“And find my Justin Bieber CD I said I was going to put in there,” Genao says.
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi Community Development.
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.