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Is Long Island City ready for Amazon’s HQ2?

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Taking stock of the booming Queens neighborhood, which will soon become home to Amazon’s HQ2

Long Island City in 2017.
Max Touhey

Brace, New Yorkers: New York City will become one of two locations that will house Amazon’s second North American headquarters (colloquially known as HQ2). The tech giant announced today that it will plop the new, split-up version of HQ2 in two different locations: Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, and Long Island City in Queens.

LIC was one of four New York City neighborhoods pitched by city and state officials as a possible HQ2 location, and as part of the agreement, New York will give the tech giant as much as $1.7 billion in subsidies through a variety of programs. In return, Amazon has promised to build a school, as well as invest in unspecified infrastructure and park improvements, along with bringing 25,000 jobs to Queens. (Let us not forget Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s offers to rename both the Newtown Creek and himself for the company.)

The city’s bid cited LIC’s “13 million square feet of first-class real estate,” along with its proximity to airports, transit lines, and cultural institutions as selling points, and apparently that—plus New York’s abundance of tech talent—was enough to sway Amazon officials.

But with these rumors comes a number of questions: Where will 25,000 Amazon employees live? Where would Amazon build a 500,000-square-foot headquarters? And does this mean the BQX will become a reality? Read on for our attempts to answer these, and more.

Where will HQ2 go?

Long Island City has seen a massive residential real estate boom in recent years, with more than 12,000 apartments added to the neighborhood’s housing stock between 2010 and 2016. But there’s also a good amount of office space spread out across the neighborhood in converted warehouses and new buildings (such as Tishman Speyer’s the Jacx, a 1.2 million-square-foot tower on Jackson Avenue), and in-the-pipeline development projects.

But Amazon wants to build its own campus, and for that, it’s heading toward the water: Several sites around Anable Basin, a small inlet that’s about half a mile from Court Square, are cited in the company’s agreement with the city and state as development sites. According to the memorandum of understanding (MOU), the HQ could be anywhere from 4 to 8 million square feet across several buildings.

Cuomo expressed interested in using a general project plan to bypass the City Council’s typical rezoning process in order to make a zoning change happen quickly, a decision that has rankled local officials. The MOU indicates that this is how it’ll move forward.

Amazon has also reportedly signed a deal to take over the majority of office space within One Court Square, aka the Citigroup building. When the banking conglomerate downsizes in 2020, it’ll leave about 1 million square feet of empty space, which Amazon will lease.

Where will its 25,000 employees live?

See the aforementioned residential real estate boom; there’s no shortage of new rentals and condos in Long Island City, with dozens more in the pipeline.

On the waterfront, two massive projects—one developed by Plaxall Realty, and the other by TF Cornerstone—would bring around 6,000 apartments, with a chunk of those set aside as below market-rate, to the neighborhood. (Both need to get the requisite rezonings to move forward, and Amazon’s decision to build on the Plaxall site could complicate matters.) The second phase of the Hunter’s Point South megaproject, which will have 900 permanently affordable apartments, is now back on track.

Further inland, there are other huge developments that are either in the works or nearing completion, including Tishman Speyer’s Jackson Park, which has 1,800 apartments; Jerry Wolkoff’s 5 Pointz-replacing rentals, with more than 1,100 apartments; and Simon Baron’s ALTA LIC, a rental that also offers co-living apartments, which recently opened with nearly 500 units. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s also worth noting that there’s a lot of new housing coming to the Brooklyn waterfront, just a hop, skip, and a jump from LIC—between the Domino Sugar megaproject, Greenpoint Landing, and other new developments.

How will this affect housing?

All signs point to real estate prices going up. In Seattle, Amazon “makes up a disproportionate share of the city’s growth,” according to the Seattle Times, and is one of the driving forces behind the city’s rapid population growth—and its rising housing costs, which have doubled since 2012.

Long Island City is already the priciest neighborhood in Queens: The median rent in the borough’s northwestern section, which includes LIC, is just under $3,000/month, according to the latest Douglas Elliman market report; the median price for a condo, meanwhile, is just over $900,000. And according to Amazon, the average HQ2 employee will likely make at least $100,000/year, which could help push prices up even further. Grant Long, a senior economist for StreetEasy, says that housing prices have already risen by 5 percent in Queens this year.

“Homes in less-dense areas adjacent to Long Island City—such as Sunnyside, Astoria, and Greenpoint—are likely to see some of the largest uptick in demand in the long run, should the reports prove true,” Long explains.

Interest in the neighborhood has also surged since rumors began swirling that HQ2 was incoming. Between November 5 and 10, StreetEasy saw a nearly 300 percent increase in searches for Long Island City compared to the previous week. And according to the Wall Street Journal, brokers representing listings in the neighborhood have been fielding requests from dozens of buyers since the announcement last week.

What about transportation?

Long Island City is served by a few subway lines, with only one—the 7—providing a quick, easy link to major Manhattan hubs like Grand Central-42nd Street or Times Square. And service on the 7, as any regular commuter will tell you, is often packed during rush hour—or, as TransitCenter’s Hayley Richardson put it to Curbed recently, the line is “hardly equipped to handle its current ridership load.”

Add to that 25,000 new workers—along with thousands of riders at its western terminus at Hudson Yards—and you could have one hell of a transit nightmare.

Some relief may be coming with the modernization of the 7’s signals, a project that has been ongoing (and delayed) for several years. But even that may not be enough—as we’ve previously reported, “a CBTC-equipped 7 line will only be able to run two additional trains per hour at peak periods, for an additional capacity of roughly 2,500 people.” (There is the ferry, at least?)

The 7 is one of only a few trains that serve Long Island City.

As part of the MOU, Amazon has agreed fund infrastructure improvements—including “streets, sidewalks, utility relocations, environmental remediation, public open space, transportation, schools and signage”—within Long Island City. Those improvements will be contingent on funds garnered from the Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program.

HQ2’s arrival could also renew momentum for the Brooklyn Queens Connector, the developer-friendly streetcar that would provide a direct link between those two boroughs along the East River waterfront. The BQX route has three stops that are in or close to Long Island City: one in Greenpoint near the Pulaski Bridge; one closer to Hunter’s Point South Park; and one near the Queensbridge Houses on the neighborhood’s northern end.

“Now is the moment to seize on this potential for equitable transit planning, to deliver the reliable option so many communities along the corridor have long lacked, and to move full steam ahead with the BQX,” Jessica Schumer, executive director of Friends of the BQX, said in a statement.

How will this affect Long Island City itself?

It’s too early to say, of course, but there are a few factors worth noting when thinking about HQ2’s impact on the booming Queens neighborhood.

The de Blasio administration recently announced a $180 million investment strategy for Long Island City—it was almost suspiciously well-timed—with the goal of “address[ing] the needs of today while preparing for a more sustainable future,” according to Mayor Bill de Blasio. The plan includes constructing a new school near Court Square, fixing the neighborhood’s sewer system, adding resiliency measures, and park upgrades.

And even with the fancy new high-rises and the new amenities the city used to lure Amazon to LIC, it’s still a neighborhood where the median income is less than $60,000/year. The neighborhood is also home to the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in the country. A downsized HQ2 would still have a huge, hard-to-predict impact on an area that’s already working hard to keep up with its massive growth.

“HQ2 has to work for Queens, not just Amazon,” City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer said in a statement to Curbed. “We already have an infrastructure deficit in LIC. We must ask how such a complex would impact the people who live in the surrounding neighborhoods. This isn’t a done deal. The local community must be heard here.”