BY CHRIS JONES
Senior Vice President and Chief Planner, Regional Plan Association
In a city that never ceases to amaze us, one of the most astounding views in the five boroughs is the one that you get when you emerge on the Long Island City side of the Queens-Midtown tunnel. For over two decades, we all got used to seeing that lonely Citibank tower standing across the East River.
We kept hearing promises of what was to come, but somehow it was never the right time. The economy would stumble. The financing wouldn’t come together. The terrorist attacks of September 11th rightly focused our attention on rebuilding what we had lost.
But when things started happening, they happened fast. Seeing the new skyline from Manhattan is one thing. But with more than two dozen new projects planned or under construction, the street-level view gives you the visceral sense of a new city literally growing out of the pavement.
And for the borough of Queens, Long Island City is just the portal to a place with enormous energy, diversity and potential.
Residential and commercial developments are happening in a long list of neighborhoods. Queens is not only New York City’s largest borough; it is also central to the future of the entire metropolitan region.
Its two airports are gateways to the global economy. The Long Island Rail Road station in Jamaica is a hub of the busiest commuter rail system in the United States. Gateway National Park in Jamaica Bay is a unique ecosystem that nourishes coastal areas and wildlife that are important to the whole New York area.
But Queens’ success is far from complete, and also comes at a price. Like the rest of the city and the region, over the past two decades it has become a much less affordable place to live. It’s still a bargain compared to Manhattan or brownstone Brooklyn, but the gap is closing fast.
With more people wanting to live here, we haven’t been able to build nearly enough new homes at rents and prices that the average New Yorker can afford. And wages for most workers are only now starting to increase after years of stagnation.
Growth also puts tremendous strains on our infrastructure, and on neighborhood services. Subways, schools and parks have become more crowded, and funding from all sources—federal, state and city—is far less than what is needed.
So in many ways, Queens epitomizes both the resurgence of the New York region and the enormous challenges that we face for the future.
So what’s in store for the next 25 years?
There are certain things that we can count on. We know that the population is going to get older as the baby boomers continue to age, and that there will be relatively fewer people coming into the workforce to take their place.
We know that we will become even more racially and ethnically diverse. Even if immigration slows dramatically, younger residents are far more likely to be black, Hispanic or Asian than older residents.
And we can be quite sure that the earth is going to get warmer and sea levels will rise, even if we don’t know how fast this will happen or how frequently storms and other disruptions will occur.
Some of the things that we don’t know are how rapidly the economy will grow, exactly what types of jobs we will have or how technology will change the ways that we live and work.
Queens is likely to continue to grow, and will have to find ways to welcome newcomers that also benefit existing neighborhoods and residents.
What’s happening now in Long Island City and western Queens is part of that future, but so are other neighborhoods in central and eastern Queens.
Jamaica is starting to see a new wave of hotel development spurred by the growth of Kennedy Airport, the popularity of the AirTrain and a rezoning of the greater Jamaica area. In the next few years, over 2,000 rooms are projected to go into construction.
We can expect to see JFK continue to expand, both in terms of passengers and new facilities. The LIRR will provide even more service at Jamaica once East Side Access is completed and a third track on its main line is built.
These developments create the possibility for Jamaica to become a new center for the city and the region, one that anchors a constellation of airport-related services with jobs, workforce programs and business opportunities for local residents and businesses.
The Jamaica Now initiative launched by Mayor de Blasio and Borough President Katz is addressing a range of neighborhood issues to advance this vision. The Regional Plan Association, working with the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, is looking at longer-term strategies to build on the city and borough efforts.
Further east, Flushing may be the next center to anchor a new economy. Community Board 7 is already the most populous community board in the city. It’s both economically and ethnically diverse. There is a huge demand for office space, and it’s one of the only markets in the outer boroughs where it’s often more profitable to use upper floors for commercial rather than residential use.
What’s needed is an upgrade of its transportation facilities, public spaces and zoning. The Main Street subway station is the busiest station outside of Manhattan. The waterfront is inaccessible, and there is a shortage of neighborhood parks. Expansion of both commercial space and mixed-income housing near the train station could be designed to create a destination.
Together, these three centers—Long Island City, Jamaica and Flushing—would create a corridor for mixed-use, mixed-income development connecting Manhattan to Queens, Nassau and Suffolk. There are a number of city and regional actions that could facilitate it.
One is to start making greater use of our commuter railroads for intra-city travel. It makes no sense for Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North trains to have empty seats when parts of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx that are served by commuter rail have inadequate subway service.
A second is to look at industrial space as a critical part of the new economy. This is important not just to retain as many good jobs as we can, but also to have the distribution, transportation and production facilities needed for a region that could reach 26 million people.
Finally, we need to make sure that neighborhood services and infrastructure are keeping pace with new development. Keeping the city economically vibrant, affordable and livable at the same time is hard, but if we’re not creating the schools, parks and transit to go with new housing and office space, then we’ll soon start losing the very qualities that make the city and region attractive in the first place.