2016-06-29 / Front Page

QCC Holds Inaugural Real Estate Expo

By Thomas Cogan

The Queens Chamber of Commerce held its first Queens Real Estate Expo last week at Terrace on the Park.  It lasted more than six hours, beginning with breakfast and a couple of panel discussions; ending with an event summary and final remarks.  In the middle were more than a dozen informational forums that listeners could choose from, and for most of the time there was a business exhibition proceeding in a couple of large rooms at one of TOP’s top levels.  The first of the morning’s panel discussions was a celebration of Queens’s arrival at being “the region’s hottest market.”  The second was what QCC Executive Director Thomas Grech called a “meat and potatoes” session, devoted to what drives growth in Queens and other inquiries. The informational panels covered such topics as energy incentives; building security; contamination problems on old, redeveloped sites; use of social media; the rebuilding of La Guardia Airport and the prospects of both the boroughs’ ferry services and the Brooklyn/Queens Connector—the BQX tram line that some, given the meeting’s locality, believed should have been the QBX.

Grech got the day started by observing that there are 1,320 counties in the United States and Queens is the most diverse of them.  The first panel was moderated by John Banks of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY).  He introduced Michael Meyer, who was ready to talk about Flushing.  Meyer, of F&T Group, said that the great Chinese settlement of Flushing, beginning in the latter decades of the 20th century, was still at a “dirty and divided” stage when he joined F&T in the 1990s but has greatly improved since then.  Through it all, the great Chinese watchword has been, “buy, don’t lease,” he said.  While it is still true that there’s foreign Chinese investment in Flushing, the local Chinese are a force.  Many of them are buying both high-priced homes on Long Island, outside Queens, and pied-a-terre apartments in Flushing, Meyer said, which amused Grech.

Patricia Dunphy of Rockrose Development spoke for Long Island City, where Rockrose has 2,500 apartments in the Court Square area.  She said that while the company built new buildings, many old and small ones were preserved and can be redeveloped in interesting ways.  Seth Pinsky, former head of the New York City Economic Development Corporation and now with RXR Development, spoke of the strength of Queens as a formal collection of neighborhoods, with their very own post offices; and also the promotion of promising business districts, not so much for their lower rental rates as for the talent available there.  Banks brought up affordability and Meyer said he carved out an area of Flushing Commons for affordable housing when it was built, and the result was great.  But how will affordability fare now, with the expiration of the 421-a tax abatement?  Dunphy said Rockrose built all its Hunters Point housing with the aid of 421-a and Pinsky wondered if it could be revived.

Banks turned to   transportation and Meyer marveled at the availability of 19 bus lines in the Main Street area, where the No. 7 train line also begins and ends.  Pinsky decried the “shameful” Metropolitan Transportation Authority spending of “billions and billions” for a few stations on the Second Avenue subway line in Manhattan and, turning to Queens and Brooklyn, foresaw construction difficulties for the builders of the proposed BQX.  Dunphy, meanwhile, feared its expense.  Pinsky said that in Willets Point, the project of remediating long-accumulated pollution could be addressed if it weren’t blocked by local insurgents who started a lawsuit that has now reached the New York State Court of Appeals in Albany.

Meyer called Flushing the place where Queens meets the rest of Long Island.  As Flushing Commons was being built, local opposition was fierce when construction entailed obliteration of the municipal parking lot on Union Street.  The cry for car parking space is common everywhere, but Meyer was so unimpressed by it he dared to say that in Flushing, less parking space, not more, is needed.

Jamaica and the Rockaways were not covered much, but a man in the audience brought up the fact that there’s much railroad trackage in those places that lies idle and might well be revived for transportation.  Grech replied that many residents in the proximity of those tracks would probably be greatly disturbed by the return of railroad traffic just beyond their backyards.

The second panel discussion, which Grech moderated, was filled by Michael Mattone of the Mattone Group; Chris Capece of Avalon Bay; and Tyler Morse of MCR Development.  A topical question was, What drives growth in Queens?  Capece of Avalon Bay, which has put up 20,000 apartments, nominated millennials, who were born in the 1980-2000 period (approximately).  They’re not moving to the suburbs outside the city, he said.  They are making some money, but are heavily burdened with educational loans to pay off, and this edges them toward rent-sharing.  Morse said that expansion of construction is vital.  MCR is building the TWA Flight Center Hotel in the old TWA Terminal Building at Kennedy Airport, he said, adding that it is a job-creator, entailing union labor.  He also said it will be more than simply an airport hotel but will also be a meeting and recreational destination in an iconic building designed by the Finnish architect, Eero Saarinen.  

Grech asked what could be impediments to growth.  Capece said construction of multi-family dwelling may be slowing.  He too wished for the revival of 421-a.  Mattone noted that the approval process that developers must face is bemoaned as an impediment but might be a brake to overbuilding.  Capece said he would like to build in eastern Queens and in Ridgewood but is not ready at the moment.  Mattone agreed, and said he’s looking over “excess air rights,” which he called “a good problem to have.”  Capece then mentioned a real estate company in Melville, where Nassau and Suffolk Counties meet, which is relocating in Long Island City, apparently not worried about impediments.  Tyler was asked if he’d welcome the return of rail lines in Rockaway and said no.  As a last remark, Grech said if he could win untold millions in the Powerball lottery he would invest in Jamaica.

The informational panels mixed advice for developers with features about spectacular public projects.  One of the latter is the rebuilding of La Guardia Airport, the challenge of which, according to Richard Smyth of the Port Authority, is to take a small airport and rebuild it in place, since there’s little or no room to put up temporary structures or move things out of the way.  In contrast, plenty of room is available for the Economic Development Corporation to complete its ferry network.  The EDC’s Justine Johnson and Madalena Phillips of Hornblower, the ferry company, said that the East River Route will be joined by five others in 2017 and 2018:  the Lower East Side Route, also Manhattan-based (2018); the Soundview Route in the Bronx (2018); the Astoria Route in Queens (2017); the South Brooklyn Route (2017); and the Rockaways Route (2017), running from the south shore of Queens around to the Brooklyn Army Terminal and on to downtown Manhattan.  There will be 21 landings in four boroughs.  Passengers will ride Hornblower ferries, which have a capacity of 199 (no vehicles).  Service will be year-round, with an estimated daily load of 12,500, or 4.6 million annually.  Long Island City is expected to be the busiest stop.

One advisory panel had lots of cautionary advice to developers on the topic of contaminated sites.  It sounded particularly daunting, but apparently developers are becoming familiar with these hazards and acquiring skill in cleaning brownfields, which takes patience and expectation of delay.

The brief session that brought the Expo to a close began with congratulations from Borough President Melinda Katz, after which many helped themselves to a finger-food lunch while listening to Hope Knight, CEO of Greater Jamaica Development Corporation; Mayra DiRico senior vice president of Astoria Bank and president of QCC; and QCC’s Thomas Grech.  Audience members were invited to contribute too, and some final thoughts came from them.  They warned developers against gentrification, saying that at present the average resident’s rent rate as part of income is close to 52 percent; and encouraged all efforts to help the borough’s diverse inhabitants learn English. 









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