By Jon Campbell
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The rooftop of the mammoth redbrick Brewster building in Long Island City might make a sweet secret spot for a New Year's 2001 tryst. The 1911 edifice on the north side of Queens Plaza has the SoHo charm of an industrial building scrubbed free of grime. Bring Cole Porter on your MP3 player.
"You're the top, you're a ritz hot toddy, you're the top, you're a Brewster body," Porter sings of the sensuous classic cars that were made here. And of course, the building's current owner boasts that it has "unobstructed Manhattan skyline views for satellite and microwave [data] transmission."
So much for romance. But there's plenty of passion at street level. Cast your eyes down Queens Plaza (which mysteriously transforms into Queensboro Plaza a block west) and maybe you'll glimpse the jaunty walk of the hookers as they pass through the neon purple glow of the new Cityscapes strip club on their way to greet the Rikers Island prison bus.
"I had a potential client coming for an appointment and he was driving in circles after he got off the Queensboro Bridge. He couldn't find my block and finally told me from his cell phone, 'Are you sure you didn't say Wrong Island City?' "
Over the past year Long Island City has become a magnet for two industries that use silicon in remarkably different ways. Giuliani administration zoning laws have pushed strip clubs into this iron-and-concrete jumble of a neighborhood at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge at the same moment that the Digital NYC program, seeking to kick start economic development there, designated it a High Technology District to which companies would be lured with significant subsidies. Rumor has it the growth in technology firms could even lead to the building of a railroad hub, complete with Amtrak service, in the neighborhood.
Cityscapes sits directly across from the Brewster Building, which is now officially the BridgePlaza TechCenter, thanks to a multimillion structural makeover that includes a newly threaded network of fiber-optic cables. The broad Plaza is overshadowed by the elevated 7 and N train lines and often clogged with cacophonous traffic. At the eastern end is the Clocktower Building, which is getting a similar overhaul, and at the western fringe is another exotic-dancing club, Scandals, which opened in March.
Oddly enough, both the sex clubs and the dotcommies smell success in the air.
"There used to be a lot of people who were afraid to come here. There were a lot of dark places," says Manzur Mazumder, the chief financial officer of NetCom Information Technology, Inc. At 30, Mazumder is the eldest partner of the software training and consulting firm that started up two years ago in the shadow of the Clocktower Building. "It's really cleaned out."
Credit the cleanup, however incomplete, to an unusual mix of the city's finest and its most lascivious.
The 108th police precinct aggressively mobilized against the Brooklyn-based Bloods street gang earlier this year after two shooting deaths were linked to their prostitution ring in Queens Plaza, which sometimes exploited young teens. The cops even asked the courts to banish suspected members of the Bloods from the Plaza, but the request was rejected.
The thin blue line has since hauled its office-trailer Forward Command Post to other flash points, and a smattering of less organized hooking has returned. The beat cops have been supplemented by more informaland improbablestreet sentries: strip joints like Dumbartons II, Scandals, Cityscapes, and Runway 69. These gentlemen's clubs have trained surveillance cameras on the streets, lighted once eerie stretches, and peopled the blocks with beefy security guards.
Most of the clubs' customers have been drive-ins, who come for an evening and then leave. But one strip club worker says the newly spiffed-up area might soon be ready for pedestrian and daytime visits as well. "Now the place [Long Island City] is jumping," says Katie, Scandals' VIP liaison, who asked that her last name not be used. "We're seeing if a luncheon program might work. We'll have a better idea after the summer, which is always our most dead time."
On a recent rainy Thursday night, some dancers in Scandals' cavernous mirrored and purple-lit club performed scarcely observed gyrations with an enthusiasm better suited to practicing piano scales. Katie says she's encouraged by the growth of the high-tech business community. "Hey, all of the girls have Web pages, and we say, the more businesses, the merrier."
More is right. In 2002, the Museum of Modern Art plans to move its entire exhibition for two years to the old Swingline Stapler factory while it remodels its building on 53rd Street. Silvercup Studios, where HBO's hit series Sex in the Cityis shot, is significantly expanding its facility in the neighborhood. Irwin Cohen, who's responsible for the much admired Chelsea Market, remade a Long Island City building in his trademark funky fashion.
Tech firms are pouring in fast. Some are refugees from Manhattan, and others are starting from the ground up. Internet infrastructure giant PSINet plans to funnel at least $200 million into revamping a local building to house servers for its customers, a good many of which are Fortune 500 companies. The cofounder and CEO of Fairway Wholesale & Distribution on 132nd Street in Manhattan sold his stake there and is starting FreshDirect.com in an old Long Island City paper distribution center.
But attracting more businesses could mean launching rents skyward. One hundred feet south of Queens Plaza is the office of Greiner-Maltz Realty Co., Inc., which claims to be the largest and oldest exclusively commercial and industrial real estate firm on Long IslandBrooklyn and Queens included. Chairman Dick Maltz says that with different types of businesses crowding in, some will have to goand he doesn't think it's the digerati.
"The strip clubs will eventually get priced out or bought out," he says. Teched-up Long Island City buildings command rents of around $25 per square foot, about half that of some Midtown and Silicon Alley rates. City-sponsored breaks can knock that down to $19 a square foot.
Maltz says that "everything's coming up roses" in Queens Plaza, but he's skeptical the area will transform itself solely through the conversion of old buildings. The physical surroundings, he says, just aren't flashy enough. "High-tech types are looking for something stylish and trendy. Something with views, or something quaint with open, bright spaces and amenities."
Bens Lee, a technology entrepreneur around the corner from NetCom Information Technology, learned about those desires the hard way. He's the CEO of Control Technologies, a military electronics maker with a staff of six, and the head of A-Web Internet Services, which has a staff of 10. Hedging his bets on war, he's also got a start-up called www.ILoveYou.com. Lee lives in Queens, so for his convenience, and to trim the company budget, he moved his A-Web staff to Long Island City from Tribeca two years ago. His employees weren't pleased.
"For a long time people were complaining," he says. "Even though a lot of them live in Brooklyn, they were upset because they like to go to dinner at a nice café after work and to be in the city excitement."
And having clients drop in isn't what it used to be. "I had a potential client coming for an appointment and he was driving in circles after he got off the Queensboro Bridge," Lee says. "He couldn't find my block and finally told me from his cell phone, 'Are you sure you didn't say Wrong Island City?' "
That client could have been a man like Jeffrey Wolf, president of the Silicon Alley capital firm Seed-One Ventures. Wolf is also the CEO of SensaTex Inc., a Silicon Alley start-up that will make Smart Shirts to monitor and transmit wearers' physiological data. SensaTex won't be making them near Queens Plaza anytime soon.
"Where is Long Island City?" Wolf says. "I wouldn't be able to find it on a map, so it's an inconvenient forum. My employees and business associates are in Manhattan. We don't need tax breaks or subsidies. Using those incentives you could say, 'Why don't I move to North Dakota?' Location doesn't mean everything, but it sure means a lot."
For now, Long Island City just isn't a place to schmooze.
Maltz looks three blocks south to the 50-story glass-sheathed Citibank tower for inspiration. The Citibank building has stood freakishly out of place since an economic downturn followed its completion in 1989. Local residents have dubbed it "the Death Star," because, like the imperial satellite in Star Wars, it looms as a reminder of powerin this case, power of the corporate Manhattan flavor. For real estate agents like Maltz, filling a building with one blockbuster tenant is much easier than cobbling together arrangements with dozens of small but finicky start-ups.
Maltz may soon have the chance to broker plenty of those single-tenant deals, in the process changing the Long Island City skyline forever. Queens Plaza may be rezoned to allow developers to build office towers where two-story shops stand today.
What's more, rumors have surfaced that a new transportation hub, a sort of junior to Pennsylvania Station, might be built at Amtrak's adjacent Sunnyside maintenance yards sometime in the next 15 years. Some speculate it could tie together the Long Island Rail Road, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the six Queens Plaza and Queensboro Plaza subway lines. An informed source says an even bolder proposal calls for the construction of "something like a whole new city" in the airspace above the rails. Amtrak is already building an LIRR station at Sunnyside to tie together Long Island and the eastern half of Manhattan in 2011. It produced a report in 1991 that in some ways favored a new station, but the idea languished until the recent growth spurt.
Transportation is a key factor mentioned by many of the transplants. It's often cited as the factor that beats out other Digital NYC sites in Harlem, the Bronx, Staten Island, and Brooklyn, as well as the ceaseless wooing by New Jersey's thriving Hudson River cities.
PSINet has a lower Manhattan plant with the hardware needed to maintain e-commerce. But as the company grew, it plunked down a new space in Long Island City because "you hop on the bridge and boom!" says senior vice president Robert Leahy. "You're there. I know theoretically your server could be in Guam or Arizona, but people like to see their equipment. And we want to be near the center of the commercial universe."
David Brause of Brause Realty, which owns BridgePlaza TechCenter, says he talks to dotcom tenants who are considering the same kind of move. "Some are saying, 'Why not just grow the expansion space in Long Island City, where's it's just one subway stop away anyway?' " Brause says. Some smaller firms such as film editors and new-media companies are thinking of moving out of Manhattan altogether.
And there's still good money to be made in accommodating back-office divisions. Delias. com, an e-tailer specializing in the youth market, moved its customer-service call center to Long Island City, even as it holds on to its frontline office in Manhattan. If Delias.com were starting today, "Long Island City would be an exciting alternative like the lower West Village was four years ago for us, and for the same reasons," president Evan Guillemin says. "We'd take a hard look. Besides, no one is funding a start-up to see it all paid out in rent."
Brause notes that, although the ambitious tech-centered redevelopment might ultimately extend a finger of Midtown Manhattan across the East River to Long Island City, "artists are the precursors to development. This is the Tribeca of 10 years ago."
Along with the MOMA move and Silvercup Studios, the neighborhood boasts the equally prestigious Kaufman Astoria Studio, the American Museum of the Moving Image, the Isamu Noguchi Sculpture Garden, P.S.1 (one of the largest contemporary art centers in the world), Socrates Sculpture Park, the outdoor Phun Factory graffiti-art museum, and the Center for Holographic Arts. But Long Island City didn't sop up artists in residence like Williamsburg, because its economy never faltered enough to leave huge lofts barren. There just wasn't much vacant to gentrify.
The odd mix of Long Island City's cultured Jekyll and its carnal Hyde sometimes throws off balance outsiders like Amtrak, which is based in Philadelphia. Amtrak spokeswoman Karen Dunn says the rise of a hipster atmosphere around Queens Plaza could draw industry and investment in. "If this other, artistic personality takes over and people have something really worth going to, it would turn out then that there could be a need for a new facility," she says.
Meanwhile, some veterans of Long Island City have already lost faith and slipped quietly away. In April, Andrea Electronics, an audio technologies company, left for the greener pastures of Melville, Long Island.
"Andrea had been in [Long Island City] since its creation in 1934 and needed to move to a more up-to-date facility. The Melville headquarters was specifically designed by Andrea's executives to accommodate the company's needs while allowing for expansion if necessary," says spokeswoman Jean Mulry. "To my knowledge we were never offered any incentives. And as for moving into a revamped building, it was never even considered. We were excited to become part of the growing technology community on Long Island."
Bohemia's not for everyone.