There was a time when Long Island City’s waterfront area wasn’t exactly a hot residential neighborhood. With its looming industrial buildings with a few small residential buildings thrown together near the East River, the area was more On the Waterfront than Sex and the City.
Today, that has most definitely changed. Long Island City is thriving with condo buildings, stores and restaurants. According to Eric Benaim, a realtor who specializes in Long Island City properties and who also lives in the area, people from Manhattan are being drawn there for value and proximity to Manhattan.
“I think it is the best location,” says Benaim, who opened his own agency, Modern Spaces, in Long Island City last year. “A lot of people—Manhattanites— think it’s Queens, and the only experience they have with Queens is going through it to go to the airport. Then they take the 7 train or the E or V train, and they see it’s literally one stop. Four or five minutes on the subway line, and you’re in a real peaceful, quiet area, and you still have a lot of the amenities that Manhattan buildings offer.”
Long Island City History
According to the Greater Astoria Historical Society’s website, Long Island City is the largest community in Queens, with some 250,000 residents. Algonquin Native Americans lived there until Dutch farmers, drawn by its fertile land, settled there in the 1860s. In 1839, a village was founded by Steven Halsey at Hallet’s Cove, and ferry service to Manhattan started shortly thereafter. In 1870, Long Island City was consolidated from the village of Astoria and several hamlets, including Ravenswood, Hunters Point, Blissville, Sunnyside, Dutch Kills, Steinway, Bowery Bay and Middletown. Long Island City was its own city (hence, Long Island City) until it became part of New York City in 1898.
The construction of a Long Island Rail Road Terminal at Hunters Point in 1861 led to the area becoming an industrial center during the Civil War. Industry grew through the consolidation of Long Island City, with gas plants and factories built along the East River. According to the historical society, Long Island City had the highest concentration of industry in the U.S. by the end of the 19th century.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Long Island City’s growth came with the construction of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909. The bridge meant Long Island City was just minutes away from Manhattan. Subway construction brought the two even closer together in 1917. According to the historical society, “Today Long Island City is connected with the rest of New York City by six tunnels and five bridges. The development of bridges, tunnels and roads helped make Long Island City an accessible industrial area for New York City.”
From Industrial to Artsy
America’s declining manufacturing industry led to another change in Long Island City. Over the past 40 years, it has become an artistic and cultural center, starting with the P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center, which is of the oldest and largest non-profit contemporary art institutions in the country. The arts center has built its reputation on providing a home to some of the most experimental art in the world. The creation of the arts center led to artists opening galleries and studios in Long Island City, largely because of its relatively affordable rents and proximity to Manhattan.
Motion picture arts are also prominent in Long Island City. Silvercup Studios, which bills itself as New York City’s largest full-scale film and television production facility, opened its first studio in the legendary Silvercup Bakery in 1983. Silvercup has been the home for such TV shows as 30 Rock, Gossip Girl, Ugly Betty and formerly was the studio for shows like The Sopranos and Sex and The City.
Particularly amazing about Long Island City’s transformation into a home for residential buildings is that it happened in just a few short years. Benaim says the first new condo to open in the area is the Gantry in the Hunters Point section.
Located at Fifth Street and 48th Avenue, the 47-unit Gantry helped start Long Island City’s real residential boom when it opened about three years ago. The revitalization started because of the (ultimately unsuccessful) push to bring the Olympics to New York City in 2012. With the need for a location to be a potential Olympic Village, whose units would then be sold, the area was re-zoned for residential, “and a lot of people became millionaires overnight,” Benaim says.
A lot of Manhattanites started looking at the neighborhood as well, says Benaim. Proximity played a significant role. “It’s so much easier to get to Midtown from here than it is from the Upper East Side or Downtown or even the West Side of Manhattan,” he says. “Some of the people in my building jog to work over the Queensboro Bridge, or some of them bike to work. It’s just really convenient.”
As interest has increased, so has variety in housing stock. Residential buildings of all sizes exist in Long Island City—“It really ranges,” says Benaim. Some buildings are as small as five units, while on the other end of the spectrum are developments like the Arris Lofts on Thomson Avenue, which houses 237 units. The View, located on the waterfront, has 184 units, whereas Casa Izcaya is a small building with just 24 luxury units. That building’s website describes the Hunters Point section of Long Island City as “trendy, edgy, and fast evolving into one of the most exciting neighborhoods of New York City.” It also points to cultural institutions like the P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center, Noguchi Museum and Sculpture Center, Socrates Sculpture Park and Silvercup Studios as reasons apartment-hunters are taking a closer look at LIC.
And new residential developments are giving homebuyers more options than ever before. Among the newer projects is the 11-story, 122-unit L haus, which was completed in early 2009 and includes a roof terrace with views of the city skyline and 10,000 square feet of outdoor yard space—a near-impossibility in Manhattan. L haus (so named for its shape) was designed by prominent architectural firm Cetra/Ruddy, and according to promotional materials, its façade, “formed from a mix of green-hued cement fiber and corrugated metal panels…references the neighborhood’s formal industrial character.”
High-end design and location are both great of course, but in the end, there’s always the money factor to consider. Benaim says that prices in Long Island City average from about $700 per square foot to over $900 for what he calls ‘trophy properties.’ “It’s probably about 30 to 40 percent cheaper here than Manhattan,” he says. “And you’re also getting a lot more bang for your buck over here.”
With one-, two- and three-bedroom units at L haus ranging in size from 675 to 1,800 square feet and priced between $500,000 to just over $1.5 million, Long Island City is perhaps a more viable option for recession-era homebuyers than similar (but far more expensive) properties back in Manhattan.
Another development has literally risen above its LIC neighbors—Star Tower is a 25-story condo high-rise slated for completion this winter at 28-02 42nd Road. When finished, the building—the Roe Development Corporation project—will contain 180 one- and two-bedroom units ranging from 617-square-feet to 1,213-square-feet, and priced from around $425,000 to over $1 million. The building—slated to be the area’s tallest—will be capped off with a 2,700-square-foot “sky deck” with a pool, cabanas, an outdoor kitchen, and 360-degree views of Manhattan
And “new” developments in Long Island City aren’t always new—at least one conversion project underway is repurposing the neighborhood’s landmark Sohmer Piano Factory into 69 new luxury condo units. The historic six-story building at 31-01 Vernon Boulevard dates back to 1886, and its red brick façade and clock tower overlooking the East River make it a distinctive neighborhood fixture. It also overlooks the aforementioned Socrates Sculpture Park, and the Noguchi Museum is just a short stroll down the block
According to Andy Gerringer, managing director for Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Development Marketing Group, who partnered with Caliendo Architects on the conversion, “These residences really capture the historical, industrial aesthetic of Long Island City, while offering a comfortable, modern lifestyle in a great neighborhood.”
The Piano Factory will offer studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom homes ranging from 412 to 1,692 square feet, many of which include private terraces or balconies. Prices start from $270,000 and range upward to $1,440,000, with occupancy slated for fall 2009. The building will have a fitness center and yoga room, a media/screening room, and a pet spa—quite a far cry from its original Victorian purpose.
With so many new buildings drawing people from Manhattan, Benaim says there’s something in Long Island City for pretty much any taste and most budgets—and each building is developing its own sense of community.
“People invite their neighbors over and they get together,” he says. “It’s building a sense of a community, I guess because it feels like they’re pioneering by coming here. Especially, if you’re not moving into an older building where the other residents are already established in their building, everyone is new.”
Many of the neighborhood’s brand-new and newly converted buildings have held open house gatherings in apartments to give newcomers an idea of what could be done with their space. This also led, according to Benaim, to residents joining together to work out deals with contractors for services like window treatments. “Everyone is learning from each other and counting on each other,” he says.
Setting Up Shop
Of course, new residents have brought other businesses to the area as well. Food Cellar, a gourmet supermarket, recently opened in 2008 at 47th Road to serve the neighborhood’s new palates. Duane Reade recently opened a drugstore here, and restaurants, boutique shops and banks are also setting up shop.
Long Island City’s changing landscape is also visible along streets like Vernon Boulevard, where a thriving business district can be found.
“There’s a mix of mixed-use buildings along with little warehouses,” Benaim says. “You might see three or four residential buildings, then right next to it you might see a one-story warehouse. About 10 or 15 years ago, the neighborhood was pretty bad. A lot of these ground-floor retail stores [stayed empty] because their landlords weren’t able to rent them, so what they were doing was converting them to ground-floor apartments.”
As new development stimulated the neighborhood, says Benaim, these buildings started to change to commercial again. In fact, Modern Spaces’ offices on Vernon Boulevard was an apartment that was turned back into office space when the Benaim set up shop in 2007.
With the city—and indeed, the country—still holding its collective breath to see what the next twist in the ongoing recessionary saga will be, it’s not a sure thing that Long Island City will continue to enjoy its most recent renaissance. But current economic woes aside, one thing is for sure—Long Island City’s splendid river views and lofty industrial spaces will always be a stone’s throw from Manhattan, and that’s as good as money in the bank.
Anthony Stoeckert is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Additional reporting by Hannah Fons.