Yesterday morning some hundred bankers, investors, developers, and other people intent on making money in Queens real estate had gathered for a breakfast conference at the Gantry Loft, a restaurant in Long Island City.
When Maria Torres-Springer, head of the New York Economic Development Corporation, took the podium, she barely had time to celebrate the mixed-use waterfront projects catalyzing growth in Queens before she was interrupted by protesters who had infiltrated the audience in business-breakfast drag. “That’s not true!” one woman in the second row shouted. “Working families cannot stay here! From Ridgewood to Corona, Queens is not for sale!” Farther back, another woman stood up, and a third: “From LIC to Flushing, Queens is not for sale!”
Here’s what the kerfuffle looked like:
Minutes earlier, Jamie McShane, a senior vice president at the Real Estate Board of New York, had given some opening remarks, as had New York City Council majority leader Jimmy Van Bramer and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. “It’s been just an amazing accomplishment over the last few years in this borough,” Katz had said, “and all of you being here today just shows that it’s onward and upward. People want to come here, live here, play here, make their money here.”
Robert Knakal, the chairman of New York Investment Sales at Cushman & Wakefield, had told the audience how his longstanding fondness for Queens began when he lived in the borough for a year after college, before moving to Manhattan, and how that relationship grew in 2000, when his firm had “filled up all of our territories in Manhattan [and] we were looking for another place to do business, and we opened up our Queens office.”
The morning’s schedule included panel discussions featuring prominent developers, bankers, and Business Improvement District executives, as well as the executive director of the Friends of the BQX, the developer-backed group advocating for a streetcar route along the Queens and Brooklyn waterfronts.
But throughout these proceedings, a steady din could be heard from outside the restaurant. Across the street, a group of about twenty people calling themselves Queens Is Not for Sale had unfurled banners and were chanting into megaphones.
After the disruption a lengthy and awkward tussle ensued as the event’s organizers, including Josh Schneps, the publisher of a chain of community newspapers, attempted to force four protesters to leave, and the protesters noisily declined. In a spirit appropriate to the occasion, organizers correctly pointed out to the protesters that they were on private property. The protesters did not find this information persuasive.
Some joker briefly played the Jeopardy theme song on the sound system, then switched to the Twilight Zone theme. It was threatened that the police would be called. The police were called. Eventually, the four women were squeezed out the door, but remained noisily in the stairwell outside. An attendee who identified himself as a retired lieutenant offered his advice: “Just lock ’em up.”
As the noise in the stairwell continued, Torres-Springer resumed her remarks, “When I hear those kinds of comments and frustration on the part of New Yorkers,” she said, “what that tells me and what I hope it tells you trying to build the city to do this work, is that we need to…make sure we’re pushing forward an agenda of inclusive growth.”
Outside on the street, the protesters were undeterred. “Maria Torres-Springer, you said you would work hard to create livable neighborhoods through your position as head of EDC,” read a statement they handed out. “But livable neighborhoods can’t be created as long as real estate developers sell off our neighborhoods.”
The group also said it is unimpressed by the mayor’s affordable-housing plan, arguing that the threshold of “affordability” is still far too high for many Queens residents. “I had the rent go up 30 percent on my apartment in Jackson Heights two years ago,” said one protester, who declined to give her name. “These people are making a profit off of turning our own neighborhoods into places where we can’t afford to live.”