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Long Island CIty Comes Into its Own Minutes fom Manhattan

 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.  

 Residential Growth

 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.

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4 Comments

  • Nice article - but your time line is off. Anyone familiar with LIC/Hunters Point would probably say that the area's residential real estate boom began in 1997 when the area's first co-op opened, the 42-story 522 unit Citylights building on the waterfront. The boom was well underway by the time the Gantry condo opened, one block away from Citylights. quote: "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."
  • Thriving retail on Vernon? Who is Benaim kidding? There are so many unsightly empty storefronts that no one is renting because the brokers have overhyped the neighborhoods and landlords are charging too much rent. Many businesses on Vernon struggle and some are having a very difficult time surviving because the foot traffic does not measure up against the overhead. Go ask them before you start a business there. And forget about trying to get a full liquor license.
  • Yes a good article, especially the history, but as noted above the timeline is off. LIC has been talked about as a redevelopment play for office and residential since at least the 1980's (Citigroup Tower). Citylights opened in 1997 and started the residential boom...and the article should have mentioned the recent office devleopment as well as the major developments that have happened and are planned for the Queens Plaza area. But overall nice work.
  • The article doesn't talk many new parents in the LIC and how Little Ones and LIC Kids serve them.