LIC/Astoria Chamber Holds Development Symposium
The symposium conducted by the Long Island City/Astoria Chamber of Commerce at the end of February had an unwieldy title, “Place-Making Economic Development and Corporate Real Estate/Social Value Creation Strategies”, but the attending panelists managed to make it clear that it referred to sustainable growth in Long Island City, Astoria and, for that matter, several parts of the country. A member of both panels, David Wilk of Sperry Van Ness, a real estate company, told Chamber President Arthur Rosenfield that “a place-making phenomenon in Long Island City” has been achieved. On the first panel, Wilk was joined by former councilmember and current candidate for Queens borough president, Melinda Katz; Kathrine Gregory of the Entrepreneur Space on 37th Street; and Christopher McMahan, a Manhattan-based architect. Wilk was on the second panel with Martin Cottingham, representing Canadian real estate firm, Avison Young; Charles N. Schilke of the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University; and Lindsay J. Thompson, also of Carey Business School.
The panel and symposium were convened as the basis of a chamber breakfast in the 16th floor conference room of the 21-04 44th Rd. building in Hunters Point. Its keynote speaker was John Catsimatidis, owner of vast supermarket holdings, who seeks the Republican nomination for mayor, in this year’s election. The night before, at a reception in the Clocktower Building, near Queens Plaza, former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. related how he was the middle figure in three generations of commitment and devotion to his home and political base, Astoria.
Catsimatidis called himself “a value creator”, which impressed Wilk, who said he tries to be that himself. He said his background includes international travels to evaluate properties. The properties and the people within the boundaries of the LIC/Astoria Chamber impressed him to the point where he could talk about a place-making phenomenon; and place, he said, is not just locality but part of the human soul and something to inspire loyalty. He is a Richard Florida enthusiast, mainly because of his book, The Rise of the Creative Class. He said that at present, the creative class, which is to be found in business, technology and the arts, is 60 million strong, the fastest growing segment of the populace. It is a group, he said, that demands talent, technology and tolerance, because without that three-T factor it cannot function. He recited a jumble of circumstances that drive or impede society and creators these days, and which force quick minds to go, as he said, beyond prior actions and renew a sense of possibility.
After Wilk, the first panelist to speak was Katz, who as the child of musicians and cultural organizers (she called the Queens Symphony Orchestra, which her father founded, a “small business”), has personal acquaintance with the creative class. Nevertheless, with her political experience also, she was skeptical about hasty enthusiasm. “You can change communities, but only if they’re ready for change,” she said. Whether or not he meant to, McMahan alluded to Katz’ city council experience with land use when he said zoning must always be looked at critically lest it hinder mixed use in neighborhoods. He spoke also of “grass roots repurposing”, that encourages citizens to pursue other neighborhoods in search of their specialties; something that the boroughs of New York provide particularly.
Gregory’s management of Entrepreneurs Space puts her very much in the creative class. Working in conjunction with the Queens Economic Development Corporation, she runs a 12,000 square foot facility, with a 5,000-square-foot kitchen, at 36-46 37th Street, providing food industry entrepreneurs with a place for development as commercial entities. Municipal laws prevent any Mildred Pierce-like cooking at home for outside sale; and also, there is a likely need for far larger utensils and equipment than could ever be found or used at home. A place like this one, which runs around the clock year-round, can be and has been an incubator for the start of many businesses. They stay at the space until they outgrow it, Gregory said. On their own, she added, they have an 80 percent success rate. (For a start, she noted, there’s a shop called Coffeed, located in a large nearby building on Northern Boulevard that stocks many of the baked items made at Entrepreneurs Space.)
The example of Entrepreneurs Space was stimulating. One woman brought up the presence of a furniture-making space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which has been an entrepreneurial center for several years; and Jean Woods-Powell, a teacher at Information Technology H.S., 21-16 44th Road, said that the school is developing the talents of local youth to improve both them and their surroundings. McMahan concluded the panel session by saying that the LIC/Astoria Chamber needs a planning committee to be able to control its destiny.
The second panel gave listeners a lot of real estate information. Out of it, Schilke of Johns Hopkins advised Long Island City that real estate can be made to work if community stakeholders find analogous souls in the corporate real estate structure. He didn’t say it would be easy, because corporate real estate offices, engaged in what he called “the real estate of non-real-estate companies”, tend to be “five levels down” and perhaps a little alienated as entities. If said stakeholders work to establish common interests between themselves and the real estate offices, a “key nexus” can be achieved. An example he cited was the successful effort by Silver Springs, Maryland to get the Discovery Channel into that community. Place-making can lead to real estate value improvement.
Cottingham described Midtown South Manhattan which is historically a manufacturing area if the “far west” (10th and 11th Avenues) is considered, has become an evolving one where $50 per square foot is the going rate in Class B property and where the work force prefers loft buildings to office towers. For the first time, creatives, including West Coast start-ups, are leasing more than financial services. In Long Island City’s empty Class C buildings, the rate is $23.50 per square foot and more likely to work as creative space than as back office set-ups, whose business could be moved to distant shores.
Thompson was on the panel to speak of urban place-making and social values. Being at Johns Hopkins and living in Baltimore, she calls that city and any other, “a big classroom” and uses it as a laboratory for study. She said all the problems are concentrated in cities but also all the solutions. Looking at the improvements in Philadelphia that she has seen, she said if Philly can do it, so can Baltimore. Her city has very bad housing stock and she said that job improvement in conjunction with housing improvement is necessary if there is to be real improvement at all. The problem is to generate an economy that is not punitive; that shows the jobless that they are not worthless.
Wilk concluded activities by displaying a map of the Boston area that was designed with technology that color-codes developmental needs in all the localities. The spots where demand is greatest are colored purple, for instance. Such an innovation appears to be a significant aid to development and improvement of place; and its like and more can be created in places where creative people go to grow and flourish.