From Amazon to Community-Controlled Economic Development: The Western Queens Community Land Trust
By Cecille de Laurentis and James DeFilippis
Members of the WQCLT Board and Steering Committee provided valuable feedback and suggestions for this piece, including Max Scott, Gil Lopez, Memo Salazar, Brenda Lau, Jenny Dubnau, Tom Paino, and Grace Chung.
The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Community Economic Development series, which examines a range of initiatives, such as cooperatives, alternative forms of collective land ownership and stewardship, mutual aid networks and worker advocacy/training organizations. Read more about this series here.
In the summer of 2019, organizers in the Long Island City (LIC) neighborhood of Queens, NY had an ambitious idea: turn a local, mostly underutilized 600,000-square-foot 1938 WPA building into a community land trust (CLT) housing artist studios, light manufacturing, and community spaces. A CLT project of that size and with those uses would be notable anywhere, as CLTs are typically residential with smaller-scale developments. But the city-owned building wasn’t just any public works project in a post-industrial neighborhood - it was a large part of the site New York City and State had promised to Amazon with $3 billion in public subsidy for its HQ2. Announced in 2018, the plan was hailed by some for its alleged job creation, but a large grassroots coalition that included community-based and labor groups such as The Teamsters, RWDSU, Queens Neighborhoods United, Justice for All Coalition, Woodside on the Move, and many more opposed it. Among other reasons, the coalition argued that ongoing gentrification and displacement would be greatly exacerbated, Amazon has a history of promoting anti-labor practices, and the company provided the facial recognition technology federal immigration authorities used at a time when raids were common in the immigrant neighborhoods of Queens. Organizers across Queens and the city as a whole mobilized to fight off Amazon’s publicly subsidized mega-development, proclaiming that “Queens is not for sale.” After Amazon withdrew on Valentine’s Day 2019, some coalition members gathered that summer to ask “Now what?” Their answer: a CLT that would put the process of economic development under community control - in the very building that the City almost handed over to Amazon.
The LIC neighborhood sits along the East River and was once home to a dense ecology of manufacturing; it was also a railroad terminus and the locus for a range of port and freight activity. As industry began to shrink in the area in the late twentieth century, artists moved in; the manufacturing zoning allowed for performance and exhibition space, and studios and rehearsal spaces coexisted with the remaining industry activity. A set of rezonings from 2001-2009 swept away much of the manufacturing-zoned land and ushered in large-scale residential development. By 2018 – when the Amazon deal was announced – the Municipal Arts Society estimated that 8.74 million square feet of residential construction (more than 10,000 units) had been built in the area. Longtime residents watched with dismay as industrial working-class jobs vanished and gentrification displaced longtime residents, small businesses, and artists.
In 2019-2020, the nascent CLT organizers worked to flesh out their vision, collaborating with Masters students at Rutgers University during a year-long planning studio. Through this process, the Western Queens Community Land Trust (WQCLT) was born. Its founders envisioned it as encompassing not only LIC but Western Queens neighborhoods from Astoria to Flushing. As the pandemic hit the communities of Western Queens particularly hard, CLT organizers spent much of 2020 addressing the needs of their neighbors. Then, in the winter of 2020, Chhaya CDC in Jackson Heights collaborated with WQCLT on an Enterprise grant to carry out a much-needed feasibility study for WQCLT’s proposed first property. The grant allowed WQCLT to hire Bagchee Architects, who had also worked with the Mott Haven-Port Morris CLT in the Bronx.
The target building is city-owned and occupied by the Department of Education. Bagchee Architects and WQCLT organizers spent the spring and summer of 2021 learning what the LIC and Western Queens community envisioned in such a building. NYCHA residents, local manufacturers, nonprofit social service providers, food justice organizers, and artists participated in focus groups. WQCLT tabled at the Queensbridge Houses, a NYCHA development north of the site, and at community spaces and fairs. In fall 2021, WQCLT participated in a citywide day of action under the banner of “Public Land in Public Hands,” holding a daylong event at Queensbridge Park, adjacent to Queensbridge Houses. As other local groups tabled and artists and musicians shared their work, Queens residents from all over the borough learned about the CLT, shared their visions for the building, signed up to participate, and ate food provided by the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center, La Adelita, and The Connected Chef.
Bagchee Architects’ feasibility study summarized the community’s vision: the Department of Education would remain in the portion of the building they currently use for office space, storage, workshops, and food distribution. The rest of the building would transform into a multi-purpose economic development and community hub. WQCLT recently dubbed the building “Queensboro People’s Space,” vowing to reflect the racial diversity, immigrant communities, and organizing at the heart of the borough. The CLT is working closely with the Street Vendor Project, and plans to provide a large commissary kitchen and parking for the vendors’ carts - both indispensable in New York City. It has also been working closely with the Queens Action Council, a food justice organization in the area, to potentially create a food co-op addressing a lack of affordable and healthy food in the area. The building will also include significant manufacturing space, artist studios, and a theater for live performances, as well as office space for local nonprofits and other social service providers. WQCLT is working to build out a governance structure that would both give Western Queens residents the agency to shape the building far into its future and keep rents deeply affordable. Community governance is key to making this building a hub for economic activity and social life in the area, connecting the “community” and “economy” of community economic development in ways that are impossible with developer-led, top-down projects.
Although WQCLT is fairly young, the group is also working to expand its impact beyond the local level. CLTs in New York City come together, share knowledge, and organize through the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI). As a NYCCLI member, WQCLT mutually supports CLTs across the city and participates in education and advocacy that is rooted in local work while pushing for city-level change.
WQCLT does not own the target building yet, but is collaborating with a large mission-aligned nonprofit developer to move forward with the project, which has received support from local elected officials. WQCLT has indicated the wish to partner with the Department of Education to adapt the building for community use as part of the citywide effort to keep public land in public hands. Working with Woodside on the Move, a neighborhood organizing and service-providing nonprofit, and the citywide New Economy Project, WQCLT recently secured funding from the New York City Council to hire its first staff member, which significantly increases the organizing capacity of this thus-far volunteer-run effort.
As the area’s history of destructive rezonings and the attempted Amazon HQ2 deal exemplify, the City and the private sector have historically collaborated on market-driven economic development strategies. New mixed-use projects in Queens that include commercial space and a minimum allotment of affordable housing may claim to achieve the same goals as WQCLT, but lack community control, sufficient affordable units, and guardrails against displacement of existing local enterprises. WQCLT’s organizers understand that community is more than just housing, which is why they formed one of the few existing CLTs planning for commercial development. The CLT structure, through its provisions for local democratic governance, can be used to create a new framework of economic development driven by people in neighborhoods. Structure alone does not guarantee democracy, but WQCLT also holds promise because it is an effort driven by organizers who stood their ground against Amazon’s HQ2 and other development efforts that failed to center local residents in their planning. Western Queens residents live in their neighborhoods, and know best what jobs, services, and community spaces they need - for that reason, they deserve the opportunity to own and control development themselves through an entity like WQCLT.
Cecille de Laurentis is a Woodside resident and member of the Western Queens Community Land Trust Steering Committee. Cecille holds Masters degrees in City and Regional Planning and Public Policy and currently works in community development finance.
James DeFilippis is a professor of Urban Planning at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. He is a founding member of the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI) and the Western Queens Community Land Trust. He has written or edited six books and more than 50 articles, book chapters, and applied reports.