It was just under a year ago that Amazon dropped its plans to build a second headquarters facility, or “HQ2,” on a waterfront site in the Long Island City section of Queens, New York.
For those who oppose corporate influence in economic development and local politics, it was a huge moment to celebrate.
For New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose economic development teams led the negotiations to bring HQ2 to Queens, it was the “greatest tragedy” — in the realm of government failures, the governor’s staff would later clarify. The governor spent the next month trying to save the deal, including taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times.
As the year went on, it seemed less and less likely that Amazon would come to the Queens waterfront site, known as Anable Basin. And then in December, the effective nail in the coffin — the corporation announced it was instead signing a lease for significant space in the new Hudson Yards development, sans the tax breaks that it would have gotten under the deal to build a new facility in Queens.
Back in Queens, conversations are now starting to formalize around what to do with the Anable Basin site, which remains a smattering of decades-old and largely vacant industrial buildings, warehouses, and parking lots, some privately owned, some owned by the city. Just in the past week, two meetings took place about the site, hosted by two groups coming from two different perspectives.
On the evening of January 21, the nascent Western Queens Community Land Trust held its first public meeting, gathering attendees in the Elizabeth McQueen Dining Hall at the Jacob Riis Settlement House, smack dab in the center of Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing complex, a few blocks north from Anable Basin along the waterfront.
Like most of the estimated 225 community land trusts around the country, Western Queens Community Land Trust envisions acquiring and holding title to properties in its catchment area, which organizer Memo Salazar described at the January 21 meeting as the neighborhoods along the 7-train subway line in Queens, from Long Island City to Flushing. The trust would offer ground leases to friendly developers aligned with the community’s interest, Salazar explained. The organization would be governed by a board representing different parts of the community, and it would have checks and balances to ensure rents aren’t hiked up to maximize profits at the expense of the community, he explained.
Unlike most other community land trusts, which focus on housing and account for some 20,000 rental units and 15,000 homeownership units around the country, Western Queens Community Land Trust envisions including commercial and industrial properties from inception — the first building it has seriously examined for acquisition is a 6-story, 510,000-square-foot building that is considered part of the 28-acre Anable Basin site. It’s currently owned and partially used as a supply warehouse by the NYC Department of Education.
The land trust’s organizers worked closely with about a dozen graduate students from the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who helped the Western Queens Community Land Trust develop bylaws and incorporation documents as part of a fall semester planning studio under the tutelage of community land trust researcher James DeFilippis, Ph.D.
The students and land trust organizers also reached out to other groups working in the land trust’s intended catchment area to gather their input on the Department of Education building. The building is part of the expected redevelopment for Anable Basin, but the city has not yet put out any official request for proposals to redevelop.
At the January 21 meeting, Salazar brought up Hellgate Farm Collective, a network of residential and rooftop gardens in Queens, which estimated a rooftop garden on the building could produce 56,000 pounds of produce a year.
Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, explained that there is a huge need from her group for commissary space — licensed and regulated commercial kitchens where food cart and food truck vendors park their carts or truck overnight and also store and prepare their ingredients in sanitary conditions. Long Island City used to hold the majority of commissary spaces for Street Vendor Project members, Kaufman-Gutierrez said, but those spaces have been pushed out as rents have gone up and industrial land has been rezoned residential.
The planning studio drafted a hypothetical redesign proposal for the Department of Education building to convert it into a multi-use building that includes light manufacturing, affordable long-term space for artists, and community uses including a school, cooperative grocery, commissary kitchen and other nonprofit spaces. To come up with financial projections and potential funding sources, the planning students consulted with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which finances community development nationwide, as well as the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center — a nonprofit that has developed eight industrial properties in Brooklyn and Queens.
The land trust’s plan comes with a total estimated development cost of $62 million, which it proposes funding through a combination of community development financial institutions, state grants, city grants, tax credits, and even some private investor capital — inspired directly by Oakland Community Land Trust’s forays into private capital (as Next City has previously reported on).
“In many ways Oakland is a pretty close parallel to Queens,” DeFilippis tells Next City. “It’s right across a body of water from one of the hottest real estate markets in the world, and historically a mixed manufacturing area with a diverse population facing tremendous gentrification pressure right now.”
But that January 21 meeting with the Western Queens Community Land Trust had a key shortcoming — only a few residents of the surrounding Queensbridge public housing community were in the packed room, as one such resident pointed out during the audience Q&A portion of the meeting.
On the other hand, residents from Queensbridge and two other public housing communities nearby turned out in force at a January 28 meeting hosted by the four private owners of property within the 28-acre Anable Basin site — TF Cornerstone, Plaxall, Simon Baron Development, and L&L Mag.
The four companies are operating jointly under the “YourLIC” banner, as a response to a challenge last year from New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents the neighborhood. Johnson and Van Bramer challenged the companies to work together on gathering community input that would inform a plan to rezone the area, including the city-owned properties. As in many cities, generally in New York City the local council member has the last word on changes to zoning and other land use regulations.
The January 28 meeting was the third in a series of meetings, with another planned next month. YourLIC estimated 200 people attended the January 28 meeting, and about 100 attended each of the two earlier meetings. YourLIC chartered a bus to bring residents from three nearby public housing communities — Queensbridge, Ravenswood and Astoria Houses — to the Plaxall Gallery, an arts and performance space inside one of the Anable Basin buildings that Plaxall owns.
YourLIC also brought in two co-facilitators, each with their own ties to the neighborhood — former LaGuardia Community College President Gail Mellow, Ph.D., and Bishop Mitchell G. Taylor, who has lived in or around Queensbridge Houses his entire life, and has served that community in a variety of ways including as pastor of a local church and founding a local credit union focused on public housing residents.
Framing the January 28 meeting, Bishop Taylor stressed that the meeting series are visioning sessions, saying “nothing has been cast, nothing has been developed, there’s no plan being presented here. This is a session to receive community input on the types of community-serving spaces you want to see on our waterfront.”
January 28 meeting participants brought up many of the same needs expressed in the January 21 meeting with Western Queens Community Land Trust — some attended both. Fresh food, indoor space for gatherings and recreation, space for small business incubation and support all came up at the January 28 meeting, as did a community land trust.
“If there is a movement of people that says we want all public space to be owned by the community in a community land trust, and this is how we’re going to do it, and this is the money that we have to do it and this is the money we still need to do it, all of that is good, and it can work where it can work,” Bishop Taylor told Next City. “I certainly wouldn’t be against that.”
But nothing was said at any point in during the January 28 meeting about the pre-Amazon plans for Anable Basin. Prior to the announcement that Amazon had picked the site, Plaxall had been preparing an application to the city to rezone the 15 acres it owns at the site, clearing the path for nearly 5,000 new units of housing, in high-rises reaching nearly 700 feet — much like the others that now line the Long Island City waterfront to the south of Anable Basin. TF Cornerstone developed and owns some of those existing high rises.
YourLIC tells Next City they’ve wiped the slate clean and the four organizations have come together to work on a single plan for the entire 28-acre waterfront area.
Long Island City, over the past two decades, has added nearly 10,000 units of market-rate housing, a construction boom that started under the Bloomberg administration. Those new market-rate buildings required many lots to be rezoned from manufacturing to residential, and in exchange for those rezonings the city negotiated to have developers fund the creation of miles of new waterfront park space from Queens to Brooklyn.
Bishop Taylor points out that even with the park space, those were raw deals for the public housing communities in the area because they changed the character of the neighborhood, bringing in huge volumes of new, wealthier residents without sufficient planning to improve transportation infrastructure, build more schools or provide any new housing affordable enough for public housing residents to move into if they so desired. He hopes that a new plan can at least result in some below-market housing and a range of community benefits tailored to the needs of the public housing residents nearby.
But Bishop Taylor holds out hope that by working with YourLIC, the community can get more than what it’s gotten before. “If there is not a project that evolves, there are no community enhancements,” Bishop Taylor says.
While the Western Queens Community Land Trust is eyeing other sites around Queens that might involve permanent low-income housing, their discussion made it very clear they desire Anable Basin to maintain its historic industrial and commercial character.
The Western Queens Community Land Trust organizers hope to have their first meeting in the next few weeks with NYC Economic Development Corporation, the city’s quasi-public economic development arm, which would conduct the anticipated request-for-proposals process to redevelop the Department of Education building.
“Nobody’s given us anything, we just believe in this, hoping if we create enough momentum, it will become a thing,” Salazar said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve corrected the number of acres in Plaxall’s now-shelved rezoning application.
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.
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.