Borough President Melinda Katz on guiding the changes coming to Queens
Queens is growing up and changing faster than it has in decades. And probably nobody has a greater role in shaping the borough than Melinda Katz. She’s been borough president since 2014, chaired the City Council’s Land Use Committee from 2003-09 and worked on land use issues at Greenberg Traurig in between. She spoke with us about airport congestion, what to do about Rikers Island and how she hopes to bring professional soccer to Queens.
C&S: Traffic problems at the airports have been a big story. Is there anything you can do?
MK: Both airports have very different issues. LaGuardia (Airport) with the $4 billion overhaul there is dealing with a lot of the traffic issues right now. People coming and going from there; it’s getting backed up. There’s more cars that are waiting – taxis and black cars – in the neighborhoods surrounding LaGuardia, so we’re hoping the cellphone lot at LaGuardia helps that. But clearly the construction has inconvenienced a lot of people. The Port Authority is working with us to make sure that it’s as minimal as possible, but it’s not going to be an easy task. LaGuardia is also going to include a train to the (airport) through Willets Point. So you have that added construction over the next two years that is clearly in our pipeline, but has to be done with the minimal obstruction to the surrounding neighborhoods.
Around JFK (Airport), you’re going to have significant enhancements to the (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) Jamaica Station for mass transit. I know the governor and I would like to see a one-seat ride to Manhattan. It includes a lot of work, like expanding the Van Wyck Expressway and the scope of work at Kew Gardens. So we hope that is done with minimal bother to the community. We will do our best to work with the Port Authority to make sure, but there’s a lot of things that need to be done for it to be a first-class transportation hub.
So combining all of that, Queens has these issues with the airports, but at the same time, there’s $60 billion of economic activity generated by the airports. And it’s the second-largest employer, by the way, in Queens. The first industry being health care.
C&S: Are you supportive of the QueensWay, or turning the Rockaway Branch Line back to a rail line?
MK: I’m waiting to see the many studies that are out on both those things. The studies on QueensWay, the studies on the Rockaway Beach Line – so we have to see what comes out of that. I have questions on both. QueensWay is a nice idea and has a lot of support in the community, but there’s issues of policing and how you keep it safe, the money that’s being spent to build it – and we’ll see what studies come out on that. The Rockaway Beach Line, now that the ferry is there, we have to see what type of effect that has on the Rockaways. And also whether that’s feasible for the city, because the tracks are now owned by the city.
C&S: Speaking about the ferries, have you taken Rockaway New York City Ferry yet?
MK: I got a tour of it the other day. I have not ridden it yet since it started anew a few days ago. I look forward to doing that. I do think it’s going to be a great boon for the Rockaways. Not only because of the people living there and folks from Manhattan coming from Manhattan to partake in our great beaches, but also from the predictability and the economic impact that it will have on the Rockaways. But you also have to look at it from the view that it’s a five borough plan. I love that idea because it’s much harder to take one of those legs out of the five borough plan than it would be were the Rockaway ferry standing alone. So the predictability of it all and the fact that we know its permanent is a great boon for the Rockaway community. And I look forward to seeing what the economic impact is of businesses wanting to come in there and retail wanting to come in there and restaurants and all that goes with it.
C&S: The Astoria ferry is opening in August. Are there any changes you hope to see before then?
MK: I’m waiting to see what happens and looking forward to all the legs to that ferry starting.
“It took generations. Literally, generations, to get this ferry. And hopefully it will lead to other paths on the water.”
C&S: Do you want a ferry route on the north shore of Queens?
MK: Not yet! We shall see. I think the more successful this ferry is, the more transportation that you’re going to see happening on the water in the years to come. It took generations. Literally, generations, to get this ferry. And we are excited about the fact that it’s five boroughs and hopefully it will lead to other paths on the water. Our traffic here in the borough of Queens and the transportation that’s so desperately needed – this will be one step towards resolving that.
C&S: The commission on closing Rikers has proposed adding or expanding jails in each borough. The logical place in Queens is using or expanding the Queens Detention Complex next to the Borough Hall in Kew Gardens. Would you support expanding that jail and bringing in inmates again?
MK: First of all, that site hasn’t been used in a long time. It would have to be significantly rebuilt. And I’m getting briefed by the Lippman Commission. So hopefully I’ll have more answers after that. I do think whatever happens has to have significant community input. There’s no doubt that something needs to be done about Rikers, I mean there’s just no doubt about that. But at the end of the day, I think the community has to have a huge say on what types of facilities get put into each borough and how we’re going to move forward on that. I look forward to seeing what the commission has to say, but I know that something needs to be done about Rikers.
C&S: The biggest new mixed-use development in years just broke ground in downtown Jamaica. It was a step in your Jamaica Now Action Plan, which seemed very heavy on neighborhood stakeholder involvement. Was this a new framework, or did you base it off another action plan?
MK: In my knowledge there hasn’t been a neighborhood action plan like this. We really went out to the community. We had 30 meetings on the Jamaica Now Plan to see how we could build a future of it. We had three public hearings to make sure that all the stakeholders were at the table as we developed the plan. We did it hand in hand with the administration. There are 26 strategic goals that came out of all these meetings and all of these public hearings. And there’s also a Jamaica leadership team that’s going to continue to monitor the growth and be a part of how we expand the Jamaica Now Plan. But it lead to $153 million in infrastructure being invested into southeast Queens. It led to the renovation of the Brinkerhoff Park Mall, it led to streetscape improvements. It led to the installation of free Wi-Fi, which is going to be a game-changer in Jamaica, Queens. It was one of the first neighborhoods in the entire city of New York to get Wi-Fi right off the streets. It led to façade improvements on Sutphin Boulevard working with Thomas Edison High School.
So I think the idea and the plan of working with the community – the stakeholders, the businesses, the homeowners, folks that have a stake in the future of Jamaica, Queens – was a game-changer in the city of New York and it certainly was for Queens.
C&S: Should the city try to replicate the Jamaica Now Action Plan in all rezonings?
MK: A lot of times it’s not just a rezoning that will lead to the future of a community. It’s all of the other things. It’s making sure that workforce development is partnering hand in hand. It’s making sure that NYC & Co. is spending money to market what is the bones of a community already. It’s making sure that every time it rains, Jamaica wasn’t underwater – that the infrastructure of a community is safe enough to be able to build around it. All of those things, I think, it’s just a great role model for the rest of the city. And, by the way, Jamaica Now proves that it can work. It was an amazing community investment.
C&S: The growth is obvious in Queens – Jamaica, Long Island City – what neighborhoods are going to be booming in the next decade? Should I buy property in Breezy Point?
MK: (laughs) Well you should, but maybe not for that reason. We know that western Queens is building organically from the ground up. All you have to do is go across the bridge and you see the skyline has changed for Long Island City. We are working on the western Queens Tech Strategic Plan that is going to be published in the next month or two, and the plan considers the critical issues of the local economy, right? The land use, the environmental issues, the technology issues. And that includes transportation and infrastructure and urban design. And of course using the Cornell Tech school that’s going to be opening there as part of our plan. We don’t want folks graduating and going halfway across the country to make those newfangled, beautiful new apps that young folks are making that are graduating. We want to make sure they stay in Queens.
You also have downtown Flushing, which the RPA (Regional Plan Association) is looking at Flushing now for the future and how that’s going to work. You need transportation there. You need to make sure you have schools. You need to make sure that the businesses there are thriving. So there’s different areas of Queens that certainly are thriving.
And then you have the tourism that’s grown organically as well. The tourism numbers in Queens have increased exponentially. So we need to leverage that to make sure the folks all over the world know they can come here and see things they’ve never seen.
C&S: Long Island City is booming, but that comes with its own problems. What can help with overcrowding on the No. 7 train, or do want more stations?
MK: Well you always need something else when you can’t get on the first or second train that comes, right? And that’s always what happens with the No. 7 train. And then in addition, it’s like a bad joke. We built entire communities around the No. 7 trains, like Long Island City, and then we shut it down every other weekend for work. They’re trying to resolve that – at least, they’re trying to upgrade the stations and upgrade the tunnels that go in and out for the No. 7 train. At the same time, you’ve got to remember that there is a plan by Flushing Meadows Park where the No. 7 train is running. The Long Island Rail Road is being reactivated by the MTA to be a commuter train as well. I’m hoping that that takes a little bit of onus off the No. 7 train. But clearly, they have to make sure that whatever they do works there. You have entire communities that are being held back simply because they can’t get in and out of Manhattan and get on the No. 7 train. And also, remember that the ferry is part of Long Island City as well. Now that there’s a five borough plan, hopefully that will help to alleviate some of the overcrowding.
C&S: Development at Willets Point is currently being decided in the courts, but what do you support there? Are you hoping to see the mixed-use development with the mall? What about a new hockey arena for the New York Islanders?
MK: I think we’ve got to see what the Court of Appeals says. I sponsored the first plan, which was the Urban Renewal Plan. And that was in 2007 and that was my bill and I thought that it was a much-needed renewal plan for an area that for generations has needed work – infrastructure work and a plan for that area. Now with the new retail, we’ve got to wait for the Court of Appeals. I think no matter what though, seeing a hockey stadium and a soccer stadium there – and a soccer stadium really is my priority – but seeing both there would be a great boon to the borough of Queens, but a great boon to Willets Point. I think we need to think big when it comes to Flushing Meadows Park. And Willets Point is a very large part of that. But no matter what the Court of Appeals says, we need to start thinking big in that area. I look forward to working with the administration to see how we can fulfill that plan.