Jones: Planning the Future of Queens

RPA Chief Planner Chris Jones gave this address at the Real Estate Marketplace Awards, sponsored by the Queens Tribune and the Press of Southeast Queens on Wednesday, October 19. 

At Regional Plan Association, we try to promote ideas whose time has not yet come. We’re a research and advocacy organization that thinks about the long view for New York metropolitan region, especially what type of development, infrastructure and environment will we need to sustain us over the next generation.

Our past plans recommended much of what you see in the region today, from the George Washington Bridge to Gateway National Park. The Greater Jamaica Development Corporation was spun off from RPA back in the 1970s, and our last comprehensive plan in the 1990s spurred a new wave of transportation projects, including restarting the Second Avenue Subway after it languished for decades, and the East Side Access project that will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal.

We are hard at work on a new regional plan that will be released next year, and in a minute I’ll give you a preview of some of its ideas and its relevance to Queens.

Your theme this evening of honoring those who have transformed the city’s skyline couldn’t be more appropriate. In a city the never ceases to amaze us, one of the most astounding views in the five boroughs is the one that you get when you emerge on the Long Island City side of the Queens-Midtown tunnel. For over two decades, we all got used to seeing that lonely Citibank tower standing across the East River. We kept hearing promises of what was to come, but somehow it was never the right time. The economy would stumble. The financing wouldn’t come together. The terrorist attacks of September 11 rightly focused our attention on rebuilding what we had lost.

But, boy, when things started happening, they happened fast. Seeing the new skyline from Manhattan is one thing. But with more than two dozen new projects planned or under construction, the street level view gives you the visceral sense of a new city literally growing out of the pavement.

And for the borough of Queens, Long Island City is just the portal to a place with enormous energy, diversity and potential. Residential and commercial developments are happening in a long list of neighborhoods. You probably all know that Queens is New York City’s largest borough, with by far the largest number of foreign-born residents. Queens is also central to the future of the entire metropolitan region.

Its two airports are gateways to the global economy. The Long Island Rail Road station in Jamaica is a hub of the busiest commuter rail system in the United States. Gateway National Park in Jamaica Bay is a unique ecosystem that nourishes coastal areas and wildlife that are important to the whole New York area. If we don’t preserve and strengthen these assets, everyone from Long Island to New Jersey will be poorer for it.

But Queens success is far from complete, and also comes at a price. Like the rest of the city and the region, over the last two decades it has become a much less affordable place to live. It’s still a bargain compared to Manhattan or brownstone Brooklyn, but the gap is closing fast.

With more people wanting to live here, we haven’t been able to build nearly enough new homes at rents and prices that the average New Yorker can afford. And wages for most workers are only now starting to increase after years of stagnation. This falls especially hard on the poor and those just starting to rise to the middle-class. That’s why Mayor de Blasio’s housing program is especially critical to insure that the city remains a place of opportunity for everyone.

Growth also puts tremendous strains on our aging infrastructure, and on neighborhood services. Just when you thought noise and traffic jams couldn’t get any worse, they have. Subways, schools and parks have become more crowded, and funding from all sources—federal, state and city—is far less than what is needed.

So in many ways, Queens epitomizes both the resurgence of the New York region, and the enormous challenges that we face for the future.

It’s important to begin by noting just how far we’ve come since 1990 when the Citibank tower at One Court Square was completed. New York was in the early stages of what would become its deepest recession since the Great Depression. The surge in crime that had been building during the 1980s was about to peak. People were leaving for more hospitable locations, and there were serious doubts about whether New York could maintain leadership in the global economy alongside cities like London and Tokyo.

The turnaround since the mid-1990s has been remarkable, and both public and private sector decisions played a big role. The drop in crime, the repair of a broken subway system, and investments in neighborhood housing all played big parts in persuading millennials, new families and businesses, workers and entrepreneurs from around the globe to locate and stay here. And all of those can be traced to decisions by city and state leaders, as well as to the persistence and entrepreneurship of local residents and businesses.

I just want to cite a few statistics to demonstrate just how profoundly things have changed.

Since 1990, life expectancy in our region has increased by 7 years for men and 4 years for women, a gain much larger than the U.S. as a whole. Where we once trailed the nation by this measure, we are now leading it. Yes, this has to do with national trends like the decline in smoking, but it also has to do with declining homicides and AIDS-related deaths stemming from public safety and health measures.

From 1975 to 2005, nearly 90% of the new jobs in the region where created outside of New York City—in New Jersey, Westchester and on Long Island. In the decade since 2005, that ratio has been totally reversed with almost 90% of new jobs being created within the five boroughs.

Subway ridership increased by 83% since 1990, and more people ride the trains now than at any time since 1948.

And the majority of new jobs and work trips have been growing not in Manhattan, but in outer borough neighborhoods like downtown Brooklyn or Flushing.

So what’s in store for the next 25 years?

There are certain things that we can count on. We know that the population is going to get older as the baby boomers continue to age, and that there will be relatively fewer people coming into the workforce to take their place.

We know that we will become even more racially and ethnically diverse. Even if immigration slows dramatically, younger residents are far more likely to be black, Hispanic or Asian than older residents.

And we can be quite sure that the earth is going to get warmer and sea levels will rise, even if we don’t know how fast this will happen or how frequently storms and other disruptions will occur.

Some of the things that we don’t know are how rapidly the economy will grow, exactly what types of jobs we will have or how technology will change the ways that we live and work.

We can see every day how our smart phones and on-demand services like Uber can make life more convenient. What will happen when we’re all riding in driverless cars fueled by electric batteries? Will the pendulum swing back to the suburbs as driving becomes more convenient and parking less of a problem?

I doubt it, at least not to the same degree as in the 1950s and 1960s when suburban sprawl was being pushed not just by the automobile but by the baby boom and big federal subsidies for home ownership and highway construction.

So Queens is likely to continue to grow, and will have to find ways to welcome newcomers that also benefit existing neighborhoods and residents.

What’s happening now in Long Island City and western Queens is part of that future, but so are other neighborhoods in central and eastern Queens.

Jamaica is starting to see new wave of development spurred by the growth of Kennedy Airport, the popularity of the AirTrain and a rezoning of the greater Jamaica area. In the next few years, 10 hotels with over 2,000 rooms are projected to go into construction.

We can expect to see Kennedy Airport continue to expand, both in passengers and in new terminals and facilities. The Long Island Rail Road will provide even more service at Jamaica once East Side Access is completed, and a third track on its main line is built to create new capacity.

These developments, along with the strength of neighborhood institutions such as York College, create the possibility for Jamaica to become a new center for the city and the region, one that anchors a constellation of airport-related services with jobs, workforce programs and business opportunities for local residents and businesses.

The Jamaica Now initiative launched by Mayor de Blasio and Borough President Katz is addressing a range of neighborhood issues, from better street design to park improvements to help make this a reality. RPA, working with the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, is looking at longer-term transportation, development and design strategies to build on the city and borough efforts.

Further east, Flushing may be the next center to anchor a new economy. Community Board 7 is already the most populous community board in the city. It’s both economically and ethnically diverse. There is a huge demand for office space, and it’s one of the only markets in the outer boroughs where it’s often more profitable to use upper floors for commercial rather than residential use. It has good road connections to the rest of the region, and proximity to LaGuardia, Citifield and Flushing Meadows.

What’s needed is an upgrade of its transportation facilities, public spaces and zoning. The Main Street subway station is the busiest station outside of Manhattan. The waterfront is inaccessible and there is a shortage of neighborhood parks. Expansion of both commercial space and mixed-income housing near the train station could be designed to create a destination.

Together, these three centers—Long Island City, Jamaica and Flushing—would create a corridor for mixed-use, mixed-income development connecting Manhattan to Queens, Nassau and Suffolk. There are a number of city and regional actions that could facilitate it. I just want to mention three.

One is to start making greater use of our commuter railroads for intra-city travel. It makes no sense for Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North trains to have empty seats when parts of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx that are served by commuter rail have inadequate subway service. Making this service work for borough residents would require a combination of pricing and service changes to make it both affordable and frequent enough to be used on a regular basis.

A second is to look at industrial space as a critical part of the new economy, not just as space waiting to be redeveloped. Even though manufacturing is declining, we could still have a million industrial jobs in the region 20 years from now if we preserve the space and implement the right supporting policies. This is important not just to retain as many good paying jobs as we can, but also to have the distribution, transportation, design, research and production facilities needed for a region that could reach 26 million people.

Finally, we need to make sure that neighborhood services and infrastructure are keeping pace with new development. Keeping the city economically vibrant, affordable and livable at the same time is hard, but if we’re not creating the schools, parks and transit to go with new housing and office space, then we’ll soon start losing the very qualities that make the city and region attractive in the first place.


Photo Credit: Michelle Kawkaw


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