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Long Island City's Court Square Changes as Towers Rise

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of a series on soon-to-change neighborhoods, Kensinger visits Long Island City's new development hotbed Court Square.

[In the Court Square area of Long Island City, older industrial warehouses and businesses are rapidly being replaced by new residential towers. All photos by Nathan Kensinger]

In the past decade, the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City has been glutted with dozens of new residential towers along its waterfront. Now the redevelopment is marching inland, overtaking the Court Square area. Along Jackson Avenue, shuttered businesses are being prepared for demolition, as new luxury towers rise to take their places. Warehouses, garages, restaurants and theaters have all been closed down, making way for new buildings but leaving few amenities behind for the rapidly growing population. "It's all residential. No businesses. Whatever businesses were here, they got the money they were looking for and retired or moved away," said Greg Biel, who works at Century Rubber Supply on Jackson Avenue, a business that his father started in 1949. "As long as people can continue to move in, they'll keep building until they reach a saturation point," said Biel. "That's America, I guess."

Several major new projects are being built in the area, including four projects from Rockrose Development that will cost "almost $1 billion," according to the Daily News. Yet the contrast between old and new in this part of Long Island City is already stark. Two-story homes are overshadowed by 30-story towers. Homeless squatters live in abandoned warehouses just a block away from luxury penthouse apartments. New art galleries and cocktail lounges share the street with empty storefronts that once housed businesses from the 1930's. And even the newcomers lament the loss of small businesses in the area. "It's a shame that everything is disappearing. There's not even a hardware store," said Hugue Dufour, the chef and owner of M. Wells Dinette, which moved to MoMA PS1 in 2012. "There's no cinema, no theaters, no nothing. Only restaurants can afford the rents." Dufour is planning to open a new restaurant in an old garage that formerly housed an auto body shop. The interior of his new establishment won't pay homage to the past residents. "I don't want it to be industrial."

All along Jackson Avenue, the striking contrast between older industrial and residential buildings and the neighborhood's new towers is evident.

Greg Biel has watched the neighborhood change from the front counter of Century Rubber Supply, ever since the area was rezoned in 2001. "That's what happened?they rezoned and everyone went gaga," said Biel. "It's been going on for 5, 6 years now."

This tower across the street from Biel's business is 12 stories high. "It will be interesting to see what happens in the next five years," said Biel.  "Just on this block alone they are planning over 1,000 new apartments."

Biel's neighbors on Jackson Avenue include the new See.Me Exhibition Space, a two story gallery which opened in January.  Workers there say that there are no plans to tear the building down.

The gallery's old space, located in a former bank at the end of the block, is currently being demolished by Rockrose Development to make way for a 50-story, 975-unit building that will be "the tallest residential building in Queens," according to the Commercial Observer.

Rockrose is also building Linc LIC (right), a luxury residential tower with over 700 units. The building will open sometime in August, according to employees at the site.

As part of their redevelopment plans for the neighborhood, Rockrose has made an old garage across the street from the Linc building available to the restauranteurs who run the M. Wells Dinette.

Hugue Dufour, the chef and owner of M. Wells, is working on the property now. "That's going to be a steakhouse," said Dufour, while standing outside his new garage. "The neighborhood is slightly underserved when it comes to restaurants."

"There's a lot of construction in the neighborhood?it's changing a lot," said Dufour, whose new restaurant is dwarfed by the Linc building and the Citibank building. "When I first moved here 6 years ago, there was nothing around." 

North of Dufour's new restaurant, many small industrial businesses have been sold off and closed down in the last few years. This empty garage sits in front of a new luxury residential tower named 27 on 27th

27 on 27th was recently named one "of the ritziest, glitziest apartment buildings in NYC" by AM New York. Its first tenants arrived this February, according to a doorman. It contains 142 apartments.

Besides facing several abandoned buildings and empty lots, the building is also bordered by the elevated subway tracks at Queens Plaza and three construction sites. This lot located next door will soon become a 30 story residential tower. 

A tower across the street from 27 on 27th is well underway, dwarfing its neighbors. These include a building that once housed the Queens Dance Center. The warehouse is now for sale. 

Other closed down businesses in the neighborhood include Papa Johnny's Restaurant on Jackson Avenue, which is located next door to a shuttered hardware store.  

An empty theater near Jackson Avenue at Queens Plaza once housed Roka Studios and is now for sale.

Nearby, an overgrown gas station sits at the edge of an empty lot, awaiting redevelopment plans.

This abandoned warehouse in the neighborhood has been closed down for at least 10 years, according to a neighbor. "It was a good building. Now its all dry rot. The roof is out, the floor is out."

There are no plans to demolish this warehouse yet, according to the neighbor. "It's just waiting. I hope it never comes down. Because where are all the rats gonna go?"
?Nathan Kensinger
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