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Part of the Long Island City site owned by Plaxall that Amazon had chosen for its HQ2 campus.
Nathan Kensinger

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Amazon’s NYC departure leaves Long Island City development site’s future uncertain

A parcel of land on the Long Island City waterfront was due to get housing and schools before Amazon swooped in

When Amazon announced in November that it had chosen Long Island City for half of its new North American headquarters, there was an unintended side consequence: Two development projects that would have brought thousands of units of planned housing, a new school, and light industrial space to the neighborhood were cast aside.

Then, the tech giant changed its plans and abandoned its proposed New York campus—and onlookers wondered if the original development plans would suddenly become relevant again. But two weeks after Amazon’s U-turn, it’s unclear what will happen to that piece of prime real estate.

The area in question is located on the Long Island City waterfront near Anable Basin. Part of it is owned by plastics company-turned-landlord Plaxall, which—before the Amazon brouhaha—was seeking a rezoning that would allow up to just shy of 5,000 apartments, 1,250 of which would be below market rate, along with a 700-seat school and 335,500 square feet of creative production and light manufacturing space. At an adjacent, city-owned site, developer TF Cornerstone was slated to build 250 below-market-rate apartments and 750 market-rate units, along with a 600-seat school, 100,000 square feet of light industrial space, and 400,000 square feet of commercial space.

Those plans are now in flux. After Amazon made it clear that they wouldn’t need the space, the developers behind the projects and City Hall have not committed to taking the prior plans off the shelf. A spokesperson for Plaxall declined to comment on if it would pursue the company’s original plans. (Plaxall’s leadership on February 14—the date of Amazon’s Valentine’s Day breakup with the city—issued a joint statement saying they were “extremely disappointed” by Amazon walking away from the HQ2 deal). A spokesperson for TF Cornerstone, meanwhile, referred questions on next steps for the site to the city.

City Hall spokesperson Jane Meyer said that the city remains “committed to working with leaders across the city to deliver schools, housing, parks and more to their neighborhoods.”

“We are currently assessing next steps for development in Long Island City and hope to hear constructive proposals from the Council Member,” she said.

At a Crain’s breakfast Friday, Economic Development Corp. President James Patchett said that, with Amazon’s abandonment of its Long Island City office deal, he would “love to pursue” the previously planned mixed-use project, though did not say one way or another on what course of action the city would opt to take.

Jimmy Van Bramer, the City Council member who represents the affected area (and was one of the most vocal critics of Amazon’s HQ2 deal), told Curbed he had unspecified “concerns” over the original proposals “that would need to be fixed,” and that he hasn’t been involved in talks about either one as of late.

“No one has contacted me yet about reviving such plans,” Van Bramer said in statement to Curbed. In the past, he had expressed his disapproval for both the Plaxall and TF Cornerstone projects, telling QNS last March that the latter would be “dead on arrival” as it was originally proposed. As for the former, Van Bramer said the city told Plaxall that he “was making [the project] incredibly difficult to get done,” according to the New York Post.

Van Bramer told Curbed that should those proposals be revived, he will “thoroughly study the proposals” and field feedback from residents and stakeholders.

“I will continue fighting with our community for the guaranteed public open space, new schools, affordable housing, infrastructure improvements and other public utilities that LIC has always deserved,” he added.

A rendering of the Plaxall site in Long Island City from November 2017, when the project was first announced.
Renderings by WXY architecture + urban design

Should he give one or both projects the thumbs down, it would not be the first time Van Bramer has blocked new homes from being built in his district. In 2016, Phipps Houses, a not-for-profit developer, sought permission to build a 10-story, 100 percent below-market-rate residential project in Sunnyside, but withdrew its application after the Council member announced his opposition to the proposal. At the time, he said the project was too tall (“Ten stories is out of character and inconsistent with the rest of the neighborhood”), and that the developer did not meet with community leaders and failed to address their concerns.

State senator Mike Gianaris—who, like Van Bramer, helped lead the high-profile battle against the Amazon deal, but does not have a voice in the city’s land use review procedure—took a slightly different tune, saying that the process of approving those projects would be more open than the HQ2 deal. “There was a plan that was moving through the normal land-use process that was responsive to the needs of that community, in the sense that they were adding school space, and they were making sure that there was an affordable housing component to it,” he told Curbed. “It was going through the process in a much more open and collective way.”

“The underlying problems of that neighborhood persist, which is the need for affordability and housing and better mass transit and school space,” Gianaris added. “We need to make sure the neighborhood can accommodate any additional presence that might be placed there.”

If pursued, the TF Cornerstone and Plaxall projects are poised to attract much more attention than they may have previously. Fresh faces on the New York political scene—including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a vocal HQ2 critic, and IDC challengers like freshman state Sens. Julia Salazar and Zellnor Myrie—have consistently spoken out about the ills of the real estate industry’s influence on politics, focusing their housing platforms on rent controls and tenant protection, and swearing off donations from industry bigwigs.

Ocasio-Cortez, for example, spoke out against a fairly modest proposed rezoning that would have allowed for an 13-story building in Jackson Heights. Roughly two weeks after she won her primary, local Council Member Francisco Moya, who previously supported the proposal, told Politico and the developer that he opposed the project, prompting the latter to withdraw the application and build the development as-of-right. (Moya maintained Ocasio-Cortez’s election did not influence his about-face on the project.)

Additionally, City Council speaker Corey Johnson—who worked for a developer before his City Council tenure and owes his current job in large part to real estate-friendly Crowley—recently pledged to no longer accept real estate cash (specifically, “real estate developers or anyone employed at their firms”), as did newly elected Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a former tenant organizer and landlord. Williams and Moya, who sit on the Council’s zoning and franchises subcommittee chair, have also each called for a moratorium on neighborhood-wide rezonings—something many progressives have for years regarded as a giveaway to developers—and called for the city to conduct a racial impact study before those move forward.

Many of those same players organized against the Amazon HQ2 deal, putting pressure on local pols like Van Bramer and Gianaris—some of whom in 2017 courted Amazon—to be outspoken deal antagonists, creating a cauldron that spooked Amazon executives out of what was once seen as a done deal.

These are all considerations for Plaxall, TF Cornerstone, and the city to mull should they proceed with their original plans for Anable Basin—a fired up, organized coalition could lead to more community attention, according to Armando Moritz-Chapelliquen, campaign coordinator for Equitable Economic Development at the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development.

“I think there’s a scenario where this is just a run-of-the-mill rezoning, where a couple of different stakeholders will express support or opposition, it basically follows the format we’ve seen in other places. I think that it’s a possibility, but I don’t think it’s a very likely one,” he said. “I don’t think, now that Amazon’s not going to Anable Basin, that everyone’s going to pack up and leave, because the community opposition to this was very real, so I think the community members who mobilized around Amazon are now going to be like ‘Okay, well we’re still here in the neighborhood, so what’s happening in its place?’”

But Moritz-Chapelliquen doesn’t believe that the attitude of those community members would necessarily be one of recalcitrance, blocking any sort of development on the site. Amazon’s aborted Long Island City waterfront plans—which drew pushback for a variety of reasons, among them the amount of mostly as-of-right tax incentives they were set to receive, a fear the jobs wouldn’t go to New Yorkers, and that it evaded the community-feedback-intensive land use review process—he said, “presents a real opportunity for us to see what community-driven economic development looks like.”

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