Next to Anable Basin in Long Island City sits a big, off-white warehouse. Aside from some decorative flourishes (markers of its New Deal roots) the building is as monumental, yet unassuming, as any other structure one finds in New York’s industrial and manufacturing zones, especially along the waterfront. But this building has become a flashpoint for questions of how much control a community can really have over its own future — and a springboard for an ambitious new plan to put that question to the test.
By now, reader, you may have heard a thing or two about community land trusts. We’ve covered them before — indeed, this model of stewardship has been in vogue long enough to incur its own degree of skepticism and backlash. CLTs have been largely focused on maintaining housing affordability in perpetuity; and to date, there have been no examples in New York City of a land trust focused squarely on commercial or manufacturing property. The Western Queens Community Land Trust is aiming to change all that. Following on the heels of a potential giveaway to Amazon (who would have likely demolished the structure as part of their erstwhile HQ2 scheme), a group of local activists started asking themselves what the Queens community, particularly its working-class and public housing residents, could do with that big, off-white warehouse. As it turns out, the building is occupied by the City’s Department of Education; but a sizable portion of its nearly 600,000 square feet remain underutilized. Filmmaker and WQCLT board co-chair Memo Salazar and architect Nandini Bagchee walk us through concrete, collective visions for what could be one of the city’s first non-residential CLTs — and the manifold challenges and negotiations that are shaping ambitions beyond just one building.
Tell us about the origins of the Western Queens Community Land Trust (WQCLT), and how you both came to be involved with this group. Your efforts really coalesced around Amazon’s potential relocation to Long Island City, right?
When I moved to Sunnyside 20 years ago, I instantly clicked with this neighborhood and fell in love with everything about Western Queens. There’s just all that diversity and different ideas clashing — that’s always been very appealing to me. It’s not that Queens is a perfect, idyllic place. Obviously, there are problems. But I would say overall, people get along. People of all different races, religions, walks of life — for the most part, they are okay with each other. We all share some of the same challenges, like affordability, because New York City has become so expensive.
When Amazon came, it really galvanized people in a way that nothing else had before. The silver lining of having Jeff Bezos target Long Island City is that we are now a tighter, stronger group that really know one another. I had written a long piece in Medium that was a point-by-point argument explaining why it was bad for Amazon to come here, for environmental, moral, logistical, and economic reasons. It was circulating around, and ended up just pulling me into a fold that I had always been an outsider to. Some of the people in the Land Trust are very much dyed-in-the-wool activists who have been doing it for years; my activism had been a bit more removed. But the threat was so real. We all worked and brought whatever skills we had. And by the end of it, we shockingly won. When the dust settled, everyone was like, “Well, now what?”
The big question was: What’s going to happen to this building that Cuomo had promised Amazon? Because it’s not abandoned; it’s a public building used by the Department of Education (DOE). Our very naive understanding, at first, was that it was empty. The press had made it seem like it was a space that was up for grabs, and we wanted to make sure that whatever happened to this space, it would stay in the community and that the land would stay public.
We were looking at the building, and we thought, “Okay, well, what if there was a community land trust to take over?” And right away, a million ideas came up. But then, what does that mean, to become a CLT? In terms of becoming a real nonprofit — what do you have to do and how do you create bylaws? And how do we make sure that this plan isn’t just the plan of the 20 people in that room, but that it is truly reflecting community input? It was around Valentine’s Day of 2018 when it was announced that the Amazon plan died. That summer, many of us got together and we had all these talks; then that fall, those of us who are really interested in policy started hammering the details out. We started studying other CLTs around the nation. At the same time, we were trying to put together this building idea a little more concretely.
We had a few wonderful academic advisors who have been instrumental from the get-go. One of them is James DeFilippis of Rutgers University. His grad studio class that fall looked at the building, and asked: What’s the reality of this? How much would it cost? What are potential sources of funding? How large is this thing? It was a student project, but it was a good first step. And then in January of 2020, we had our first coming out event at Jacob A. Riis Settlement in Queensbridge and announced the plans to the public. People were really excited about the idea.
And then COVID hit. Everything stopped. There were a few months of us just making sense of our world, and when mutual aid popped up, that became our priority. We spent the rest of last year trying to pick up the pieces and figure out how to move forward. In the meantime, we incorporated; we became an actual nonprofit. And last fall, we finally started coming out of the fog and really getting serious about it. We heard about this grant that would cover a feasibility study to explore the architectural aspects: Can this actually happen? Will these ideas actually work, from a zoning perspective, but also just physically, in terms of the building?
I became involved in this movement, you might call it, back in 2016 when I worked with South Bronx Unite, who went on to incorporate into a CLT. That was my first encounter with how a non-residential building (because community land trusts are usually tied to housing) could also be thought of as a community space, and how much-needed places where people work — such as manufacturing and other commercial spaces — are getting squeezed out of the city. I’ve worked as an architect on the design and planning of nonprofits spaces, and have researched the history of space-based activism during the 1970s in New York, when community groups came into ownership of vacant, City-owned properties and turned them into vibrant cultural institutions, gardens, and housing that were organized, coordinated and self-run by people within neighborhoods.
Nandini and the CLT, along with the broader community, have been putting together this report that will be due at the end of the year. We spent the spring, through Zoom, having lots of community meetings and inviting everybody we could. We had meetings for artists, makers, food sovereignty organizations and other grassroots service providers — everybody would come in and basically just throw out what they wanted. “I need this many square feet and I need total darkness because I’m an archivist and I have celluloid that I have to preserve.” Or: “I need access to fresh air because I’m working with clay.” Everyone has their own needs.
This summer, we started doing a lot of community outreach. Ngawang Tenzin from Nandini’s office built this wonderful model of the building that people could take apart level by level. It’s one thing to show CAD drawings in a PDF, but it’s another to lift up each floor and go down the building. It’s so tactile. That really helped people at open festivals and local community tabling events to understand what could be done.
Our aim has always been to work with and include them, and to see what their needs are. I think it would be very beneficial for them to partner with the community for many reasons. It would give them more of a real stakeholder presence in the building, whereas Cuomo clearly was going to just throw them out. They would be a staple tenant — we could go in there without booting anyone out and still use a lot of that building for community purposes.
It’s a special building. It sits at the intersection of Vernon Boulevard and 44th Drive, and was built as a storage facility for the Department of Purchase back in the 30s — a part of all these other New Deal-era, Works Progress Administration projects, where money was being invested in public projects in different parts of the city. It’s quite monumental-looking for a storage facility: six stories, made of concrete, and beautifully located on the edge of the water. It is also just one of a handful of light manufacturing structures remaining on the Long Island City waterfront.
In September 2020, a group of people from the Land Trust were able to visit the building, before I became involved. They were able to take some photographs and speak to people about how the building was being used. But when it comes to public buildings and their fate, a lot of it has to do with the administration in place. As we rolled into this new election season and things began to shift, combined with the ongoing pandemic and all the things that schools have been dealing with, it’s been more difficult to communicate with the DOE.
We went through the Department of Buildings to get our hands on the many plans that had been filed over the years, and managed to get a set of drawings that have allowed us to construct a measured set with a fair degree of accuracy. I was also lucky enough to speak to the DOE’s Custodian Engineer, who’s been there for a couple of years and is extremely knowledgeable about the state of the building systems and how it’s currently used. From him, we gathered that it is a important facility that the DOE have been using over the years as administrative central offices, and to distribute dry foods to all public schools across the five boroughs. They quite like their location. They also use the space to store light fixtures, equipment and other replacement parts that the school system might need. A few other related agencies, like the Public Schools Athletic League, share space in the building as well.
However, through reconstructing the ways that this 600,000 square foot facility is currently occupied, it appears that much of it is also underutilized. A large portion of the building is not air-conditioned, and it’s in a flood zone. During Hurricane Sandy, they lost the use of two their freight elevators, and a lot of the mechanical systems still need to be upgraded and replaced.
In addition to the keeping the DOE on site, what is the WQCLT’s vision for how the broader community will use this structure?
From the beginning, we never thought residential use was even a possibility. This is clearly a manufacturing building. There’s a huge need for light manufacturing of all kinds that has been priced out of here. There’s a huge need for artist spaces, from painting to sculpture, to music studios and theater. There’s a huge rooftop: Why not bring a farm in to use that space? If you go north to Queensbridge, it’s a food desert, and people don’t have a lot of healthy options.
We’ve been talking to mission-compatible community organizations, as well as Queens residents at these different festivals and tabling events, and we’re trying to distribute different types of uses throughout the building, broadly prioritized under categories of manufacturing, arts, food justice and care.
The building is in a M1-4 light manufacturing district. And the facility itself fits very much into that kind of typology. It’s built like a tank, and has over 15 loading docks, so it’s really made for storage and dispersal. We’re excited about how tenants might use this infrastructure that the building already provides for new functions. One of the most interesting partners invested in leasing space here is the Street Vendor Project, who would occupy half of the ground floor. There would be commissary kitchens, a pantry, and stations for washing, loading, and unloading. The whole ground floor is about access to the dock, but the DOE could continue with their operations there as well as other groups.
It may sound very dry, but the most exciting aspect of this building is that it would be a place for people to make stuff at affordable rents. We’ve looked for inspiration to the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, which is an interesting organization premised on this idea of providing below-market rent to people such as woodworkers, metal workers, and small light manufacturers that need this type of space.
The second priority is the arts — providing affordable studio and making space. The perimeter of the building is lined with large windows and high ceilings that would provide a wonderful work environment for all types of creative people. And the building has such a large footprint, with an interior that is very difficult to program without access to natural light — for these spaces, theaters, archives, and music studios are a perfect fit.
WQCLT is also in conversation with neighbors who are interested in having daycare, after school programs, and job training. Looking at the development trends in the neighborhood, we’ve seen an increase in luxury housing, but very little in terms of new educational and care facilities for most people living in the Queensbridge and Ravenswood neighborhoods. The upper floors are a place for learning and growth where classrooms, cafeterias, and other shared facilities such as libraries would benefit seniors, adults, and children.
The CLT has also been talking to two organizations called Hellgate Farm and The Connected Chef, who have been advising on how the roof could become converted into a model farm, food distribution center, and recreational event space. It’s not that we can completely solve our food shortage problems by creating rooftop farms; this is more going to be a place where people connect to community through the idea of farming. The vendor garage, the food co-op, and the roof farm: it’s this tripartite structure that can holistically address the lack of access to food and equity in this part of the city.
It’s not like we’re coming with some completely radically different idea of what the neighborhood should be — it’s actually reflecting what the neighborhood has always been and is struggling to remain.
There’s a big “if you build it, they will come” sort of thing going on. Manufacturing is not a very sexy topic to be talking about, but there is no doubt that the minute something like this opens up, there will be hundreds of people with hundreds of ideas. There’s also the reframing of what it means to be a community space. From the very beginning, I’ve wanted to see libraries in there. Not just book libraries, but tool libraries, or a woodworking space where people could come in and build themselves a piece of furniture. I don’t know how many people in Queens are actively thinking about that right now, but if they see it, and they see people using it, all of a sudden it becomes a very tangible and simple thing to understand.
This building isn’t a theoretical thing. It really has a lot of pragmatic uses. I think one part of our responsibility is to absorb what the community is saying they need now, and another part of it is to be forward-thinking about how it can better serve the community in ways that people may not have imagined yet.
The building is nearly a century old and located in a flood zone. What kinds of issues related to maintenance and climate do you anticipate having to deal with?
Not having access to the building, it doesn’t make sense to get engineers on board quite yet. But we have informally spoken to a structural engineer who has worked on similar concrete frame buildings from the same era. Even though it is a 100-year-old structure, it’s one of those buildings that’s a keeper. In New York City, we tear so much down and create so much construction and demolition waste — we’re not going to do that here.
In the event of a storm surge, or even daily flooding (as these episodes increase with sea level rise), the water is, of course, right there. The first floor is approximately four to five feet above grade. But we’re not proposing any uses in the basement, not even with the vendor trucks — that’s the only sensible strategy. The building’s custodian informed me that the idea is to fill the basement. That’s why they haven’t fixed the heating and elevators that were damaged during Sandy; the building systems require a comprehensive rethinking. The WQCLT is motivated to do this in conjunction with the DOE.
Also included in our proposal is a green roof that provides water retention. You can get tax credits for that. It’s a good way to not flood the city sewer systems, and the structure of the building can take that type of load.
The Long Island City Coalition, who have been here for many years and know the area better than anyone, have been working on proposals for the whole area, including a wetlands park and other kinds of climate resilience strategies. We’re in partnership with them in making sure that this building fits into everything they understand. We’re not going radical. What we’re doing is just reusing what’s already there, and it is not just us in a vacuum. We are thinking holistically about the whole area and coming as a united community front with all these proposals.
I think Memo nailed the word “resilience.” What does it mean? Many things. For me, as an architect, resiliency doesn’t just end at the landscape or climate remediation. It begins there and it goes right into the social fabric of this area, given that there’s nowhere the existing community can afford to live, nowhere they can afford to work; they’re not able to make things here, they’re not having a good recreative and work life, and they don’t have access to good labor practices. This is all part of resilience for me. We can think very particularly about how to manage the water, but that’s just one of the systems that constitute resilience.
The community land trust is a model that can potentially operate on different scales of systemic organizing. Who owns the land? Who lives here? How do we live with climate change? All this is something that normally you look to the government to bring together. But we know our agencies are so disjointed at the moment, from Parks to the DOE. We hope that direct participation might bring these disjointed public amenities together. This could be the function of a community land trust, to be a mechanism for mending and creating these connections between agencies and local communities that otherwise never speak to one another.
Beyond this building, what is the broader scope of the WQCLT?
The CLT is not looking to become a real estate broker. One of our main purposes is to act as an umbrella for community groups across Western Queens who have no other alternatives. The reason I’m so passionate about this is, if we can actually gain a foothold and have a working playbook for communities, that’s kind of the goal. Here’s how you do it; here’s how you get the loans; you’re going through the CLT and here’s how you ensure that this property will stay affordable decades into the future. It’s not so much we want to look back and have this portfolio of properties that we can boast about. It’s more that every property, including this DOE building, will be its own independent thing run by a specific community group. Or not — whatever the group of people from the neighborhood have decided they need from us there. We’re just the people that hold the piece of paper that keeps you honest and makes sure that people 50 years from now are still being just as honest, and are still being stewards of the land to the community.
The DOE building is massive and will have many tenants: some small and temporary, some large and permanent. They all need some form of representation and sense of ownership. As such, it seems that the best way to go about this is for each unique project we’re involved in to have its own subsidiary that, in the contract, builds in accountability, local democratic structure, and independence — while at the same time having a functioning board that can make day-to-day decisions without having to take a vote every single time a decision needs to be made. That board then needs some kind of periodic oversight from the WQCLT board so as to keep them accountable. In turn, we would also be working with a mission-driven, nonprofit development partner. We’ve been speaking to a few, especially one that’s been very passionate about this project and has much more expertise in terms of financing.
With CLTs, there are checks and balances between different segments of membership. You don’t want to have too much power in the hands of the people that are actually living or working in the property, because then they might be tempted to get greedy. They should never have a controlling interest; at the same time, outside people should never have a controlling interest. You have this tripartite model where a third of the membership who has voting power would be people that are on the property — whether that’s living on it or working on it, depending what the property is. Another third are people from the community who know the community well, but don’t have any direct benefit from that property. And then a third are people that are outside of that community, academic advisors and so on who understand the issues but don’t live there or benefit from the property necessarily.
How does the organization of one property feed into this larger umbrella? And how do you keep that tripartite model? It starts to get really confusing. What we fall back on is: Why are we here in the first place? It’s definitely about bringing racial and economic equity to Western Queens. I don’t know what the final version of that membership question is. But I do know that we’re all very committed to making sure that it’s reflecting the voice of Western Queens, which is not one person, and not one group. It’s such a wide tapestry from all spectrums of life. There’s just not going to be consensus 100 percent across the board.
How do you see community land trusts serving as a model for development in Western Queens, or even New York City at large?
At the end of the day, there is much to be tested in this idea, but the concept is straightforward: instead of the City giving land and properties over to developers — or Amazon — they could instead provide a structure by which communities could take ownership of that land. Establishing the Community Land Trust would allow land to be separated from the building, and could stabilize the use value in the face of an escalating real estate value. The CLT is a legal device that allows us to begin to imagine a city built a little differently.
500 years from now it might be a ridiculous concept, and maybe something else has come because the world will be so different; it’s all relative to your place in time. And land is such a permanent thing that you can’t ever invent some system that’s going to be the right system. But for right now, given that we live in this capitalist system, where somebody has to own something, the CLT method is as good of a work-around as I’ve seen, and that’s why I’ve gotten excited. It really feels like a forward path to being able to keep people living and working in a functional way in a community for the coming years, decades, or centuries.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.