If Long Island City had an official mascot, it would have to be Elizabeth Lusskin. That’s not just because she’s the president of the Queens neighborhood’s eponymous partnership. It’s because, like the area, she has donned different hats, all of them working toward building a stronger LIC.
Her first job out of college was at the Manhattan district attorney’s office in a unit that prosecuted white-collar crimes. At that time, the 52-year-old married mother of two said there were a lot of landlords harassing their tenants so they’d move and the landlords could convert the buildings. Witnessing this piqued her interest in housing issues and propelled her to go into law school after just over a year at the DA’s office.
Talking with Commercial Observer in her office at Brause Realty’s 27-01 Queens Plaza North (also called the Brewster Building), Lusskin said many of her jobs as legal counsel have been with organizations that seek public-private partnerships to work closely with the community like The Municipal Arts Society of New York and the Alliance for Downtown New York. Before joining the Long Island City Partnership in 2013, Lusskin worked with her alma mater, New York University’s engineering school, as the vice president of strategic initiatives, where she was in charge of ingratiating the institution with its student body.
One of Lusskin’s pet projects at the Long Island City Partnership has been the first phase of a plan that focuses on leveraging LIC’s potential across different sectors—commercial, residential and industrial. LIC has existed in its current form for a couple of centuries, but the area has lacked an official plan that assesses how the sectors can better contribute to the neighborhood, Lusskin said. Now, despite the fact that she has worked to put one in place, with input from different stakeholders, she considers it just the beginning for the neighborhood.
Commercial Observer: You’ve worked with different New York City neighborhood groups in different capacities. What piqued your interest in Long Island City and the partnership?
Lusskin: I saw that it really was mixed use. It had a residential community, a business community as well as a cultural community and an industrial community. It had infrastructure and challenges about how to continue to serve and balance all of that. But it had so many great assets and people, and I was excited about the opportunity to work in such a multidimensional neighborhood. It wasn’t that all we had to do was sweep the streets a little more or make a map. We had to do those things as well, but the challenges were at every level and so were the opportunities.
Long Island City sort of has similar conditions to Downtown Brooklyn—some industrial elements along the edges and lots of changes—but one would still say the Kings County neighborhood is further along in its development than the Queens one. Why is that so?
I’d say that there are similarities and differences, and I try and resist direct comparison because the city is so much better for the fact that they’re both doing well. I think that if you look at Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City both as central business districts, a big difference is that Downtown Brooklyn had an office core to begin with. Then you added on to that with MetroTech [Center] and other things like that. But what you had here was more of an industrial landscape that morphed into more of an office landscape like this building that we’re in, the front of it was a factory and then MetLife and JetBlue got added onto it.
There are a couple of other distinctions. One is where they relate to. Downtown Brooklyn is right opposite Lower Manhattan. It has a relationship with the Financial District and houses a lot of the Financial District’s back offices. To add to this it has the courts and Borough Hall.
We have a court here, but it’s not the same. We are opposite Midtown and Midtown South and we’re seeing so much demand right now because of that relationship. So you’ve got this incredibly large and really varied part of the city. The businesses that occupy Midtown, Midtown South, Chelsea and the Far West Side pertain to the huge mix of businesses here that want to be associated with them.
The other thing that we have is two airports. What makes Long Island City different from another other boroughs New York City is that it is more like a city. We have one of the largest and healthiest industrial districts in the entire state. That is right in there with a growing commercial district, with 30 museums and cultural institutions as well as thousands of residences, 28 open hotels and 36 more on the way. The reason these businesses are here and are healthy and want to stay and grow here is really that upper level of manufacturing where you’re in the highly customized end of the world.
Why do you say that?
We are what I call the customization capital of the world. We don’t have businesses that make mass-produced long shelf-life items. They have moved elsewhere. The perfect example is Silvercup Studios. This fantastic, incredibly successful film and TV studio that was Silvercup bread, which made supermarket bread, right?—that went out; film and TV came in. What we do have is Amy’s Bread, which is an artisanal bread company that fills the restaurant baskets of some of the highest-end restaurants in the city as well as its own retail locations. That is high end, highly specialized, needs to be delivered absolutely fresh.
We don’t have the glass we were drinking in. We don’t have companies that make standardized glasses for Bed Bath & Beyond. What we have is Depp Glass that makes the custom glass for the staircases in Apple stores or the elevators at the World Trade Center and needs to be right near their customers. They’re also doing international business, so they need to be near the airports. So, these businesses have a real purpose to being here.
The healthy and very dynamic industrial or manufacturing sector, much of which is very modern and tech based, blends in with all the other uses here to create a really rich, vibrant community. So, companies are really happy to be here. There is value in Long Island City as a community; it is not that it is just a value proposition as compared to other places.
You don’t think it’s about affordability?
People are not just making decisions to come here or to stay here because it is cheaper than someplace else. Your rent is less expensive here as an office tenant than it is in Midtown, but what people find is that actually being here has value to them beyond the rent savings—the convenience, the transportation, the high-quality workforce, the fact that there is a robust residential community with lots of options. The fact that there’s culture and arts and other communities to collaborate with gives value to being here beyond the rent difference there is.
Do you think LIC, or Queens as a whole, is like the neglected middle child? It’s always Brooklyn and Manhattan that have been the star kids.
I don’t think it was clamoring for attention. When you meet the artists who have been doing their art here for 20 years, they didn’t come here because they wanted to be part of a very public arts scene. They came here because they wanted great studio space at a great price, really well located to Manhattan galleries and museums. They didn’t care if anybody knew they were here.
We still have a number of artists whose names I cannot mention. They are world-famous artists who like being here anonymously, and people leave them alone. It is why movie stars like living in New York City, because people leave them alone. I think there are a lot of people who just wanted to be here doing their stuff, and they weren’t shouting for it to be recognized for that. Now you’ve got more people who do want to brand with the neighborhood. We’ve got a whole bunch of fashion-related tenants moving in, and there’s a lot more sense that we shouldn’t be the best-kept secret anymore.
Now that 421a seems to be back, is that going to impact projects like Hallet’s Point?
I will let the developers of Hallet’s Point talk about their project.
Okay, but what about other projects that it might affect?
I think it’ll be interesting. There was definitely a slowdown in acquisitions after everyone who had 421a got their permits filed towards the end of 2015. There was definitely a slowdown in activity. Part of it was also because there has been so much activity and how many transactions can there be? But there is no question that it is extremely important in the overall picture, and we’ll start to see pretty soon how that plays out. It still has to be formally adopted, so it’ll be a little while before we see.
There is a 79-story tower that is being built by developer Chris Xu in LIC. Are there challenges in developing something of that level there?
There are a number of projects, I think we counted four or five, that are over 70 stories in the Queens Plaza-Court Square area. The skyline is changing dramatically around here. We did a rendering a year a half ago to see what it would look like, and his project was not a part of it because it is more recent. I think that it’s another example of why we did this report. When they made the changes in the zoning, the intention was to make LIC a central business district by adding in some residential development, which is similar to what had been done in Lower Manhattan. This gives you the 24/7 demand cycle for retail and services and so on. With so many more residential units developed than was initially anticipated, the need for more transportation, more schools, health services, is very, very present.
Did you grow up in Long Island City?
No, I grew up in Manhattan.
How do you remember Long Island City when you were growing up in the 1970s and 80s?
Well, you know, the Pepsi sign on the waterfront was part of the Pepsi bottling plant when I was growing up. It wasn’t a vestige of something amidst a residential neighborhood. The whole waterfront was active with industrial uses and a lot of people will tell you that while there was a great residential community here, a lot of the families worked in the factories around here. Certainly as the city was going through some tough times, Long Island City was as well.
It was not a safe place in a lot of areas including Queens Plaza. It was more of a place you didn’t go through unless you had a specific reason to come rather than a place you’d come to hang out if you wanted a world-class steak [at M. Wells, for example].
What changed that?
It was a few things. One thing was the business improvement district, which we manage, was formed in 2005. Working with the city and others [LIC started seeing] the kind of investments and security that helped change the character of the area.
But that was in combination with private and public investment and the general improvement of the quality of life in the city as a whole. I have to give tremendous credit to our two precincts, the 108th and the 114th. It is a combination of on-street investments by the city, management in the neighborhood by the BID, investments in the waterfront with the park, residential development, transportation investment as well as the rising economic fortunes of the companies that are here.
Do you think the rail yards divide Long Island City?
The interesting thing is, how much connectivity there is despite the rail yards, right? So if you go on that Thomson Avenue Bridge, which runs from the Court Square subway station, where we’ve got multiple subways going through, over to LaGuardia and other things. There is constant traffic over the bridge—vehicular, people and so on. The 21st Street Bridge is a little metal bridge that goes over the yards and under the [Long Island Expressway], and there are people on that bridge all the time. Despite the yards, we connect. It would be great to have even more crossings over the yards. There’s so many great investment going on like Austell Place over by Skillman Avenue; it’s a great street if you go there. The Zipper Building has been moved to a warehouse, to housing things like the Joffrey Ballet School.
In Brooklyn, I’ve seen a lot of anger from some communities that feel they were the ones that helped invigorate certain neighborhoods, and now they are being pushed out. Is that an issue in LIC?
There is an incredible pre-existing community here, both closer to the waterfront and north of the bridge. You have to give credit to residents of the three NYCHA public housing developments in the area, the Queensbridge, Astoria and Ravenswood Houses. Their tremendous tenants associations and representatives have done great things.
One of the things we feel strongly about is that we want to improve the spaces under the Queensboro Bridge, so the residents there can comfortably enjoy the beautiful parks in the southern part of the waterfront and likewise we want people from the south to feel comfortable going up to Queensbridge Park, but also the Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park. One of the things that we’ve talked about is using the cultural assets here. The Museum of the Moving Image has several projects with Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House and the public housing projects, to bring a diverse group from many, many different backgrounds together with our diverse cultural institutions and to bring together all of our residents and workers. We want to do this in a lasting way, for the creation of culture and of the space, not just for it to look pretty. We want to create not only a passageway but have an action that makes everyone feel invested in the neighborhood.