Neighborhood Knowledge Supports Resilient Communities

By Star Childs

Star Childs is an urban designer and a cofounder of Citiesense, a Neighborhood Knowledge Platform that maps fresh local data about cities to improve planning and development.

Long Island City is a New York City neighborhood on the rise, literally. There is more real estate being built in Long Island City (LIC) than any other neighborhood in the country right now, on a square foot basis. Many local factors drive this growth. To understand these local factors and the impact that this development will have on the neighborhood going forward, the LIC community needed a way to collect and analyze local data from a range of different sources. The Long Island City Partnership, a local development corporation that manages the LIC Business Improvement District, collects and analyzes data related to neighborhood conditions and real estate development. The members of the LIC Partnership know everything there is to know about the area, what makes it perform its best and how to improve the neighborhood.

LIC is one of the premier industrial neighborhoods in New York. In addition to its industrial legacy, LIC has exceptionally good transit access to the busiest downtown in the country, Midtown Manhattan. Over the past decade, there have been two major contributing factors to the changes happening in LIC: great transit access and an abundance of large, underutilized manufacturing buildings and vacant lots. Since 2006, development of new buildings and reuse or conversion of existing industrial spaces resulted in over 12,800 new housing units, 3,000 new hotel rooms and more than one million square feet of office space in the LIC area. And this past decade of growth was just the beginning. The area around the three main subway stations in LIC will continue to grow with more than 24,000 housing units, 5,000 hotel rooms, and over 2.8 million square feet of office space in the pipeline over the next ten years.

Map of the Development Activity impacting the LIC neighborhood (Long Island City Partnership – http://www.longislandcityqueens.com/maps/)

 LIC is experiencing an unprecedented neighborhood transformation. On the surface, there is no doubting this, given the ubiquitous construction taking place across the city, but it’s less clear what that big change will ultimately be; what it will mean for the neighborhood and New York City in general.

To understand how this transformation will affect LIC and how the changes will impact the city as a whole, analysts and decision makers need access to accurate on-the-ground insight about the area and ways to track and analyze local data. Neighborhood organizations like LICP are uniquely positioned to provide this insight by providing information that can ensure the right decisions get made.

Take real estate developers as an example. Developers cannot find the right site, or invest in a building with the right mix uses if they do not have accurate insight about that status of properties and existing and real estate products, block to block. On the public sector side, decision makers need insight into these variables as well. Policy makers and the consultants they work with need to understand the local dynamics of the area, as well as its surroundings, in order to plan for long term growth and community resilience.

The number of hotels currently being built in Long Island City raises questions for the real estate market and the local community:

  • Will there be a market for this many hotel rooms? Will more need to be built?
  • How will a large amount of transient housing units impact the LIC community from a social perspective?
  • Should New York City be thinking about adopting new land use policies for the area that enable other land use options for certain properties?

Analyzing local data is the most effective way to answer these questions.

Local data is important to drive better decision-making, but the big question this raises is: where does trusted local data about neighborhoods like LIC come from, and who collects it? Even if by some miracle of grassroots community engagement, all property owners and business owners decided to create a gigantic shared spreadsheet with data about their business operations and property details, it would still require regular management and upkeep in order for it be useful.

What about municipal government agencies, you might ask? Government data is helpful, and with advancements in government open data policies and technology, it is becoming more accessible. Yet, this data only canvases public service related events, such as building permits, 311 complaints, and real estate deed transfers. All very helpful, but not the full story on its own. To be useful for neighborhood-scale analysis, even the best government data requires an additional layer of insight into details such as local business performance and number of employees; street life activity and active pedestrian areas; the current status of real estate development activity, and vacant retail spaces on commercial streets. All of these details inform an accurate picture of neighborhood activity in real-time. Government data can give a sense of how an area is doing quantitatively, and at the city scale, but only local data is able to measure the more qualitative aspects of an area down to the neighborhood scale.

In reality, local community-based collaboration remains the most effective way to collect accurate data at the neighborhood scale, however it will not happen on its own. For Long Island City, the local data exists because of the Long Island City Partnership and the LIC Business Improvement District. This locally organized non-profit makes it their job to collect and share accurate neighborhood data with the community in order to support a useful knowledge-base for making better decisions about LIC. They understand that, while they do not control the local market, they can do their best to inform it based on accurate local information about the neighborhood.

Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs for short, are an interesting community-based development model for realizing coordinated neighborhood improvement efforts. One of the most unique aspects of BIDs is that they are a self-taxing entity created by local owners and administered by the city government. This special tax assessment is received by the BID and used to provide supplemental services that the BID members agree will add value to their neighborhood and help the area perform better as a commercial center, and as a place in general. The result is a democratic model for local investment that the entire community benefits from. These additional services may include economic development and retail services, sanitation and security departments that augment the city’s own services, streetscape improvements, horticulture installations, event planning, and visitor services.

To achieve all this for LIC and collect local data about it, the neighborhood property owners, businesses and the Long Island City Partnership decided to create their own Business Improvement District for the neighborhood. The LIC BID was established in 2005 and last year it was expanded to include twice the number of properties. Visit the Long Island City Partnership’s website, LICQNS.com, to learn more about this neighborhood that is changing so rapidly, and explore the local data they collect and share to track the changes and inform decision makers.

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2 Comments

  1. Good reporting, but something is missing — how to bake low carbon development and climate resilience into LIC’s future. With all the construction going on now, it’s literally a once-in-a-lifetime chance to lower GHG emissions for the 50-75 year lifetime of all these new buildings and help advance a City law goal to cut these emissions 80% by 2050. Also critical, given the quantities of waterfront that characterize LIC, is planning now for smart land use + building design that factor in resilience to future storm surges and floods. Superstorm Sandy is not just a history lesson, it’s a warning of clear and present danger.

    Reply
    • Great points – and increasingly more timely year by year as we reap the reality checks like the hurricanes some dealt with this summer.

      For LIC, there isn’t a current sustainability/resiliency plan in place that I’m aware of for LIC specifically, but DCP is currently studying the neighborhood as part of the City’s Places work, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/plans/long-island-city-core/long-island-city-core.page

      That said, whether the plan ultimately comes as part of a city-wide strategy or a local one, you’re absolutely right! There’s an enormous opportunity for accurate local data to direct planning and development toward more resilient strategies for waterfront communities and there are no good reasons to ignore the data just because land use policies haven’t caught up. For instance, turning on the 2015 flood plain layer on the map above, shows that 432 existing buildings (with 7,538 dwelling units) are in that flood plain today.. and there’s a new flood plain that impacts even more buildings based on expectations for 2050.

      Reply

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