Jun. 24, 2015 - Brick Underground

To those unfamiliar with Long Island City, believe the hype (or almost all of it, anyway). The westernmost neighborhood in Queens (read: closest to Manhattan) has a real community feel, lots of apartments with water views, and enough amenities to make you want to stay put and enjoy the neighborhood, even though Manhattan is an easy 5 to 15 minutes away via subway or ferry, depending on location.

In fact, boatloads of Manhattanites hang out in Long Island City on weekends, trekking via the East River Ferry to relax in the waterfront parks run by the Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. The back-to-back parks seem to go on forever, punctuated by playgrounds, dog runs, bike paths, the gantries, and other visually interesting landscaping and seating options.

Three piers break up the green space: The fishing pier has a large, free-form steel table with fresh running water for cleaning the catch of the day; another is there for eating, equipped with high tables and bar stools; and the last one has no furniture at all, and has a local yoga studio, the Yoga Room, conducting “yoga in the park” there on summer Sundays.

The waterfront is steps from Vernon Boulevard where lunch options abound, if a picnic with goodies from local market Food Cellar & Co. isn’t your thing (but we suggest you try it).

Housing stock

The neighborhood building mix is 75 percent luxury high-rise buildings, 16 percent new buildings, and only 1 percent walkups, according to Naked Apartments. Walkups are few and far between (as are single family homes) because the neighborhood was recently rezoned from commercial to make room for big, shiny high-rises. Right now, 20,000 units are under construction and 10,000 apartments in multi-amenity high rises have been added in the last couple of years. Some are condos, some rentals.

Many of Long Island City’s  condos — like this $1.3 million two-bedroom— are in new buildings with lots of amenities. Condo prices in the area crossed the $1,000 per-square-foot mark during the first quarter of 2015, according to brokerage Modern Spaces.  In comparison, the average per-square-foot price for Queens is $393.

Juxtaposed against Manhattan, however, and Long Island City prices are still cheaper, though they’re “getting closer,” says Robert Whalen, a broker with Nest Seekers who’s based in Long Island City. According to Streeteasy, the median sales price in the neighborhood $1.1 million, similar to the East Village and Yorkville. The median rental price is $2,875, similar to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.

Still, Whalen argues that you get more for your money in LIC, thanks to the vibe. “The streets are a little wider here [than the rest of the city], there is much more sky,” he says. “Even around the tallest buildings you feel like you’re in an open, spacious place; the water helps with that, too.”

And then there’s the view (not to be confused with the high-rise, The View, which opened ion Center Boulevard in 2008). “It’s nice to sit by the river in relative tranquility and see the most amazing city on the planet, the iconic image of New York City,” Whalen says. “While all the madness is going on in there, I’m sitting here drinking a cup of coffee with my two-year-old.” But it’s far from sleepy, he adds: “It’s a thriving neighborhood and it has everything you want within steps.

Neighborhoods within a neighborhood

Most people are familiar with the waterfront and its new condos in what is called the Hunter’s Point section, but there’s more to LIC than the waterfront. A 2001 rezoning added 8,000 units to a 37-block area comprising LIC’s ‘microhoods’ of Court Square and Queens Plaza. Now there are more new condos extending east and north of the Hunter’s Point area. Restaurants, retail and supermarkets are following.

There’s access to the 7 train from both sections, which also share great views of Manhattan and have undergone livability upgrades like the one-and-a-half-acre, sustainably designed open space called Dutch Kills Green in the Queens Plaza area that replaced a former parking lot.  It has a native-plant wetlands, artist-designed benches, a small amphitheatre and two Dutch millstones from the 1600’s.

That said, it is surrounded by elevated subways trains and a constant flow of traffic.  And it does border several abandoned buildings. Where Long Island City parks are concerned, the Hunters Point Parks have this one beat, but it’s a great start and a sign of things to come.

Different kinds of chain stores

As Long Island City continues to be developed, it’s gotten more creature comforts like gyms and better restaurants (M.Wells Steakhouse and Mu Ramen anyone?).
Interestingly, though, the neighborhood’s chains appear to have been mindfully chosen, even curated by — and for — its high-end foodie residents. There’s an outpost of Greenwich Village’s famous Corner Bistro.  Tribeca Pediatrics serves the neighborhood’s youngest residents (more on that, below).  The Doughnut Plant, a cult favorite in Manhattan, recently opened its doors in the Falchi Building, a short walk from Court Square. There’s also an outpost of the ever-popular, health-conscious burger joint Bareburger.  Rock climbing facility Brooklyn Boulders is opening its second New York location this summer, north of the Queensboro Bridge, on 41st Avenue.

Long Island City has its own coffee chain, Sweetleaf, with three locations. The newest Sweetleaf opened on Center Boulevard in 2012; it turns into a cocktail bar after 6 p.m. and stays open until 2 a.m. Blend is another Long Island City local institution. The original is on Vernon Boulevard, and Blend on the Water is on Center Boulevard.
Hunter’s Point has the aforementioned Food Cellar & Co, which is similar to Whole Foods.  A new Food Cellar is opening in Court Square. Natural Frontier is a solid health food store option near the Pulaski Bridge.
Otherwise, a Key Food in Court Square and Costco north of the Queensboro Bridge serves grocery shoppers.  FreshDirect, Peapod and Food Cellar all deliver.  Many of the newer buildings have cold rooms to accommodate daytime grocery deliveries, too.
There are some clothing boutiques along both Center Boulevard and Vernon Boulevard, but if you need to go to the Gap, you will have to leave the area for that.

Art and culture

You can’t mention LIC without discussing its thriving art scene. MoMA PS1, the Noguchi Museum, Socrates Sculpture Park, the Chocolate Factory Theater, Flux Factory, Museum of the Moving Image, and Thalia Spanish Theatre are all in Long Island City, allowing the area to maintain its art cred — though the loss of 5Pointz did hurt — while expensive strollers and glassy high-rises abound.

LIC Artists, Long Island City’s non-profit artist advocacy organization, was founded back in 1986.  It boasts 84 resident artists who often show their work locally, most recently in the Falchi building in Court Square, where they held their 30thAnniversary Members’ Show.  SculptureCenter was founded by artists in 1928 and is still New York City’s only contemporary art museum dedicated to sculpture.

It’s a family affair

If you want a sense of how popular the neighborhood is with families, consider the fact that Little in the City, LIC’s active parenting group, includes 750 families.
Ask any parent what the biggest issue facing LIC is, and the response will be the same:  schools and family-sized apartments.
When it comes to kindergarten seats, Long Island City has a problem.  50 children were wait-listed for the neighborhood’s public school, P.S. 78, this year (the DOE has since added classes to help kids move off the waitlist). In 2013, this number was 31.

Kris Schrey, coordinator of Little In the City, blames local politicians for this. “Politicians have been asleep at the wheel,” he says, explaining that, “they have a history of asking [developers] for things and usually they get everything they ask for or they get part of it.  But [the politicians] haven’t made any permits contingent on another school.” Among the asks have been artist studios, community space and affordable housing.

There’s an interest for parochial and charter schools, says Schrey, since P.S. 78/I.S. 78 is the only game in town at the moment. Schrey wishes P.S .78 offered Mandarin and bemoans that it is “the same fare served everywhere.” He wishes the school better reflected a community comprised of a huge international population and lots of professionals in creative fields. Neighboring Greenpoint’s P.S. 110 , for example, has a French immersion program.  “P.S. 78 really has to get their act together,” he says.

The playgrounds, on the other hand, attract kids from all over the city.  They’re bright, imaginative, and plentiful.  Hunter’s Point South’s playground is the newest. A gated space, it has a climbing web and a wall, plus swings and a separate toddler area. Kids love the water feature, which forms a river that wraps halfway around an AstroTurf hill from which they can roll down.

Gantry Plaza State Park’s playground (see photo above), is called “rainbow park” by locals, because of its bold primary colors. Futuristic shapes give it a whimsical and adventurous atmosphere. It offers a giant spider web-like climbing structure and a ship-like structure, utilized to mimic steering the ships that pass nearby in the East River.
A path made of wood planks leads to the sprinkler area and is regulated by a lifeguard. Its nozzles spray water skyward for 15 minutes once children activate it by pressing the button. Kids can also regulate the water pressure. A seasonal food concession is located outside the playground that sells snacks and coffee.

The question of where these kids are going to spend time when they’re inside is an ongoing problem. “There’s a complete lack of three- and four-bedroom family-friendly apartments,” says Schrey.

Streeteasy currently lists six three-bedroom apartments for sale in the neighborhood, with prices ranging from $2.15M to $3.49 million. On the rental side, there are 26 three-bedrooms, ranging from $2,245 to $8,800 a month.

Getting to and fro 

The 7 train runs from Flushing to Times Square. It takes one stop from the Vernon/Jackson in Hunter’s Point to Grand Central, and three stops to Times Square. “You can walk five minutes to the subway, ride the subway for five minutes, and then walk five minutes to your office — 15 minutes door to desk,” says Whalen.
The 7 makes three stops in Manhattan: Grand Central, then Bryant Park and Times Square.  From those three stops, you can transfer to the 4,5,6, the M,F,B,D and then the N,Q,R,W, Shuttle, 1,2,3,A,C and E.
The  G train trucks into in the neighborhood, too, and at Court Square you can catch the G, E, M, 7 and 7. One stop away from Court Square by E and M train is 53rd and Lexington where there’s transfer to the 6. Then there’s the East River Ferry, which takes you to downtown Manhattan in 20 minutes. The ferry terminal is located in the Hunter’s Point neighborhood; it has a café and decent bathrooms for convenience.

What’s on the horizon

NYU Langone is opening a medical center in the Court Square area in about 18 months, to meet the growing community’s healthcare needs.

Construction of Hunters Point South Park Phase II begins late this summer and will stretch from 54th Avenue to Newtown Creek. The city’s Economic Development Corporation, which is implementing the project, predicts a finish in 2018.

For Phase II, architects focused on a series of paths, at different elevations and with different views, to give pedestrians quiet space to walk, sit or escape the city streets.

A shady peninsula between 54th and 55th Avenues will jut into the East River, culminating in a proposed public art piece called “Phases of the Moon.” It will feature seven stone discs that will glow subtly at night.