Who Needs Artists When You Could Have Luxury Housing?

5 pointz

There’s not much to be said about 5 Pointz’s planned demolition in the works in order to build two large luxury condos. It’s just sad. Since the mid-1990’s, 5 Pointz has been a graffiti Mecca, a place where graffiti artists could collaborate, a place where youth can learn hip hop culture, and a place that has drawn tourism from all over the world.  And now, because 5 Pointz is on undeveloped private property, the owner, the Wolcoff Family, is moving forward with plans to develop it. For luxury apartments.

5 Pointz is currently 200,000 square feet with 200 artist studios.  After a great deal of negotiations, the Wolcoff’s (G+M Realty) has agreed to keep 12,000 square feet of gallery space (to be curated by 5 Pointz), 20 artist studios, and the Wolcoffs have agreed to staffing the development with union jobs, 200 of them to be permanent.  To make the deal even sweeter, they increased the planned units of affordable housing from 75 to 210 units.  According to an article about 5 Pointz in the NYTimes:

The Wolkoffs’ decision to nearly triple the number of affordable housing units was not purely altruistic. To qualify for tax-free financing, developers must earmark one-fifth of the units in a project for low- and moderate-income tenants.

At first this feels complicated: 5 Pointz is being torn down, but at least there’s going to be some new affordable housing? Not quite the whole story.

What is happening at 5 Pointz speaks to a larger issue of lack of community control and gentrification in Long Island City.  First, the wealthy family is enabled to do this through a rezoning of the area recently approved by the Department of City Planning and the New York City Council. Approving the rezoning effectively gave away any leverage to demand more affordable housing and more community control over the redevelopment of what has come to be seen as a LIC cultural institution.

And yes,  there are some agreements between the developers and the City, and some aspects of those agreements sound nice.  If luxury housing is going to be built anyway, of course we believe that affordable housing should be built as well.  But this development is a blow to the community of hip hop and graffiti artists, and of Long Island City in general, that will inevitably be priced out of their homes.

As Councilman Van Bramer stated, “Artists really helped transform Long Island City. Some pieces of the new building recognize that history and honor that legacy. I think that’s fair.” Well, artists are typically the vanguard of gentrification — something that has been recently bemoaned (without nearly enough self-reflection or awareness, in our opinion) by David Byrne in The Guardian. Think Williamsburg, Bushwick, or now Ridgewood in Queens. While artists can bring about an important change for the better for a community, the attraction can also spark higher income folks moving in. 

This doesn’t have to be the case. Reading Van Bramer’s statements, we were reminded of what Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz said at 1520 Sedgwick a few weeks ago. We were at the press conference, and while we don’t have his written statement, his message was clear and very memorable. Hip hop, he said, saved the Bronx. At a time when no one believed in the Bronx, Ed Koch’s administration had resorted to painting flowers on derelict buildings so that motorists from the highway couldn’t tell how burnt out the borough was, and DJ Kool Herc was throwing parties in the basement of 1520 Sedgwick. When the Bronx had nothing to believe in, artists gave it Hip Hop. That story ended with a landmark designation for 1520 Sedgwick and permanent affordability.

So while some might say what is happening at 5 Pointz is the sad but inevitable effect of changing urban spaces, that statement is wrong. What is happening at 5 Pointz is happening because of a real estate friendly administration that has been all-too-nice to private developers.

We’d like to throw out two final questions: Will 5 Pointz actually agree to curate the gallery associated with the luxury apartments ?  And will the graffiti community really allow the walls of the buildings to go unscathed?  We hope not.

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