2017-06-28 / Features

The Fourth Annual Long Island City Summit Sees Big Turnout

By Thomas Cogan
The fourth annual LIC Summit, convened once again at the Museum of the Moving Image by the Long Island City Partnership, had an introduction and six panel meetings.  The 2017 session seemed to temper the enthusiasm shown by the earlier summits, becoming cautious about the meaning of all that construction.  At the moment, Queens Plaza and Hunters Point are looking awesome in their partially-completed state, but it was generally agreed the equitable dispensation of residential and commercial prosperity will be necessary if the completed buildings are to be filled successfully.

The first panel was called Coordinating Investment in the LIC Community and included two presidents of the New York City Economic Development Council:  the current one, James Patchett, and Seth Pinsky, who headed the EDC in the last five years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.  Patchett looked for the arrival of tens of thousands of new jobs, “somewhere between Morgan Stanley and Duane Reade,” in Long Island City, and its beneficiaries would ride ferries.  He deplored any impulse by residential interests to force out commercial.  In that he was joined by Katherine Wylde, president of the Partnership for NYC.  She is a Brooklyn resident who said that the boom in her borough became a victim of its own success.  LIC, she said, is doing a better job of encouraging commercial development and must continue to do that by bringing in the life sciences through public-private partnerships, since they cannot bear $80-120 per-square-foot rentals. 

Pinsky, now the executive vice president of RXR Realty, called LIC the only truly mixed-use community in the city, though he warned that the ideal of “neighborhood equilibrium” ultimately tips and it’s everyone’s duty to deal with it.  Among the ways of doing that are by protecting transportation and developing land use policies.  Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, said mixed use as it now stands in LIC must be the envy of cities nationwide.  A Brooklynite like Wylde, like her he also lamented recent development there.  He favors rental policies for commercial growth, especially to lessen residential hegemony:  offices instead of endless condos and residential rentals.  Patchett replied that with few exceptions, commercial space does not pay for itself outside Manhattan.  LIC’s situation favors residential, like it or not. 

Pinsky said the only solution is to build more, lest rent increases continue unstoppably.  Upzoning and density are necessary for affordability, he said.  Scissura, though he favors policies that need government intervention, said government moves clumsily in a dynamic situation like LIC’s current one, taking up “years and years” of time with meetings and planning.  Everyone would be better off if it would more promptly conclude its business and get out of the way.  From the audience came a gripe that the LIC zoning code is heavily skewed toward residential development; and why, the inquirer asked, should that be?  Wylde said it descends from 1970s ideas, good at the time but now outdated.  Elizabeth Lusskin, president of the LIC partnership and moderator of the panel, said the initiative to favor the presence of life science companies locally could be exemplary.

The next two panels and the two after that ran simultaneously.  Of the four, one was entitled Retail as Placemaking:  Leveraging New Demand and Learning from Successes and another, LIC’s High Tech and Advanced Manufacturing Economy.  The retail panel was moderated by Patricia Dunphy of Rockrose Development Corp.  The first panelist introduced was Donna Drimer of Matted LIC, a gallery and artistic items store that she has run for eight years on Vernon Boulevard.  When first in LIC, she was told that the coming building boom would soon surround her.  Instead, at the four-year mark, the last of the retailers she had met when she arrived closed shop.  It’s still sparsely populated on the street near 46th Avenue and Drimer says she’s desperate for neighbors and needs the foot traffic.  Next was Amber Jacobsen, the owner of Toby’s Estate Coffee on Jackson Avenue, one part of a five-store enterprise that she and a partner have established in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan.  She recalled that when she opened her shop in the West Village it was displeasing to see a Starbucks moving in nearby, but with growth she learned coexistence was easy.  She has no fear of a Starbucks near her in Hunters Point.  Dunphy said Toby’s has two coffee shops not named Starbucks located within a few doors, and as she recalled the many nail salons that opened near each other when Battery Park City was new, she said that’s not unusual. 

Drimer, who lives on Queens Plaza and considers it a retail badlands, said LIC rents should be appropriate to what you want situated locally.  Big Box?  Charge it big bucks, say $300 per square foot, while charging smaller rates to smaller places.  Melissa Burch of Lendlease Americas Development said that LIC’s residential growth is exciting, since it ties to retail consequentially.  Regarding retail following residential development, Aaron Fishbein of Winick Realty said that retailers are often stumped about how and when to act.  Dunphy spoke for local light industry, referring to a building at 21st Street and 43rd Avenue where there’s working space for lampmakers, upholsterers and gold leaf artisans, among others.  She said she’s been asked if the building would be “developed,” and has replied that it’s fine as is.  

The panel on LIC’s High Tech was opened by Jeff Merritt of the Mayor’s Office of Tech and Innovation.  He said that LIC has the “secret sauce” that technology sectors thrive on.  Karen Wittels of HR&A Advisors identified the Midtown South area of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Tech Triangle as the current tech centers of the city and added that LIC could soon be as tech-significant as they are, particularly if they continue to form a link with Cornell Technion, the graduate-level technological school on Roosevelt Island that is due to open classes in August.  Paula Kirby, managing director of Plaxall, on 46th Avenue, which for more than 75 years has been a Long Island City manufacturer of thermoforming and other innovations, said she has seen artists and techies come to Long Island City in recent years and thrive in the company’s 1940s building.  Peter Weijmarshausen, co-founder and CEO of  Shapeways, a leading 3D printing manufacturer, said he found “a great space” in LIC in 2011 and says it is more manageable than his old office in Manhattan.  Melva Miller, panel moderator and deputy borough president of Queens, called Shapeways a “must see” visit. 

Ron Brachman of Cornell Tech said one function of the new school will be interaction between academia and the business world.  If, for example, a driverless automobile were to be developed at the school, models of it might be kept in LIC.  It’s not that LIC would be in an exclusive relationship with Cornell Tech, but as Wittels said, “if the school is the launching pad, LIC could be the landing pad.”  Meanwhile, Weijmarshausen answered a question from Miller about recruitment, saying that he has talent hunters looking for young people who are acutely future-oriented, since he wants problem-solvers ready to change technology completely.  Brachman said he would like to apply his experience in the tech world to the academic.  The tech world has such watchwords as “fail fast” and “break things and see what happens,” while campus projects, once begun, seem never to go away.  He said that Cornell Tech should send its students forth ready for technological turbulence.  Asked what he thinks of artists, he said he welcomes them because they can challenge techies and turn them away from tunnel-vision work practices.  Weijmarshausen said he believes the tech world will more and more connect to the physical world.  Asked what he finds important for himself in LIC, he said, “In two words:  digital technology.”

The last panel aimed to look at LIC in a regional context.  The panelists were introduced by Joshua Schneps of Schneps Communications, who asked Jonathan Bowles, moderator of the panel and executive director of Center for an Urban Future, to consider that context.  Bowles said the main consideration is to compare New York City’s tech smallness in the late 20th century and how it has gained respectability since then.  Angela Sung-Pinsky of ABNY, the Association for a Better New York, said the tech heart is Midtown South, but it may be at the saturation point.  A move to LIC would be nothing new.  Gail Mellow, president of La Guardia Community College, said all strategies must be applied to lift LIC, adding that she was proud that her school worked with businesses such as Goldman Sachs.  Sung-Pinsky said that growth in LIC has unfortunately become a problem of affordability and worried if communities are contributing to better education.

Winston Fisher, partner at the real estate firm of Fisher Brothers, said that 2018 would be a climactic year in LIC, but developers must work for affordability and zoning that works for everybody if it is to be successful.  This includes the arts community, which must be excellent, he said.  Sung-Pinsky said that other New York neighborhoods tend to believe that change could be good but probably will be bad, a pessimistic attitude that should be overcome by improved community activity and imagination.  Bowles said that technology is bound to be distrusted if people believe it shuts them out.  Mellow said that the human structure must be respected as well as the physical structure.  Seth-Pinsky said that tech is a surviving entity that in New York pays well even in jobs that don’t require advanced scholastic degrees.  Fisher closed the proceedings by restating that radical action must be taken in a world that’s radically changing.      



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