The glittering tower just beyond his reach on the Manhattan side of the East River meant just one thing to Vincenzo Cerbone: Long Island City’s time had arrived.
The building that caught Cerbone’s eye was the United Nations, completed in 1952, just in time for the Italian immigrant’s 1954 arrival in New York. He soon opened a restaurant in Long Island City and in 1977 established another, Manducatis, which he still runs with his wife Ida, son Anthony and grandchildren.
In the years since, many besides Cerbone predicted a renaissance for the industrial neighborhood that also was home to active drug and prostitution trades. The 1990 completion of Citigroup’s 50-story tower at Court Square was but one of the events that would trigger a turnaround.
For Long Island City, the future is finally here. High-rise towers — completed and under construction —suddenly crowd the view from the Queensboro Plaza transit hub. In the last five years, 6,051 apartments were completed and another 16,488 units are expected by 2020, according to the Long Island City Partnership, which runs the area’s business improvement district.
“Long Island City was not ripe. But now, the fruit is ripe everyone is coming,” said Cerbone, 86.
Office development is also underway. Opened in 2011, 2 Gotham Center is a 21-story building that houses 3,000 employees of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Two more Gotham Center towers totaling 1.4-milllion square feet recently broke ground. All told, 3.5 million square feet of office space are in the pipeline by 2020, the Long Island City Partnership reports, double the existing 3.3 million square feet.
Unlike the New York State-sponsored waterfront community at Hunter’s Point launched in the 1990s, this new development is market driven and it’s in the heart of Long Island City — a 37-block stretch from Queens Plaza south to Court Square.
Even with eight subway lines, the Queensboro Bridge and its tempting convenience to Manhattan, Long Island City needed a boost before it could boom. A 2001 zoning change raised the development ceiling, allowing a mix of commercial and residential towers in the low-rise neighborhood. Later New York City sponsored a facelift that included a new park at Queens Plaza and center median packed with trees and shrubs along Jackson Avenue.
The result has been a dramatic jump in housing costs. The median one-bedroom rents for $3,100, up from $1,850 in 2006, according to NeighborhoodX, a real estate analytics firm. The new housing is responsible for the rarified rents, with bargains in older buildings, though those too are rising, said Constantine Valhouli, the firm’s co-founder.
The neighborhood is short on retail and other conveniences, however. Elizabeth Lusskin, president of the Long Island City Partnership notes that an upscale grocer opened late last year and more shops will come as the neighborhood grows. Many amenities are available in the surrounding neighborhood, Lusskin said, such as Moma PS 1 and major parks along the Hunters Point waterfront.
“It’s finally going to fulfill its promise to be a really vibrant central business district for the city,” she said.
But some commuters fear the new downtown will overload already crowded subways headed to Manhattan. Installation of a new signal system that allows for more frequent trains is supposed to provide some additional service and Lusskin said that residents’ ability to walk to nearby workplaces should offset some of the increased demand.
Even new businesses are noticing the change. Mike Saccone, 46, and wife Adrienne, 44, opened the Commissary Market on Queens Plaza North in 2013, offering sandwiches, salads and fresh-baked goods to commuters and area workers. Now the couple plans to accommodate the new residents with the sale of wine, beer and sake, a new dining room that serves sushi, and a later closing time of 9 p.m.
The Saccones so like the neighborhood that they are considering a move from the Upper East Side. It’s actually a quicker trip for their two daughters to school near Union Square, they said.
“Long Island City is a very convenient neighborhood,” Mike Saccone said.