When 2019 began, Amazon was still slated to build HQ2 on the Long Island City waterfront.
The tech giant planned to invest $2.5 billion to create 25,000 jobs in New York City over a decade, with the potential for up to 40,000 jobs. As part of the deal, Amazon was set to receive nearly $3 billion in performance-based tax subsidies.
Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio touted the deal, which they said would have generated $27.5 billion in revenue over 25 years.
But almost as soon as Amazon announced they were coming to Queens, the growing progressive movement in the borough responded.
With the support of local elected officials, including State Senator Michael Gianaris, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a coalition of community organizations and labor unions rallied, protested and fought against Amazon and the deal throughout Queens and at City Hall.
Amazon executives were grilled by City Council members at two hearings, made worse by repeated heckling and interruptions from activists.
The final nail in the HQ2 coffin may have been the State Senate’s appointment of Gianaris to the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), a committee that could have blocked the deal.
Despite polls showing a majority of New Yorkers supported HQ2, the company had seen enough. On Valentine’s Day, Amazon pulled the plug on its Queens campus, much to the shock of the city.
“A number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence, and will not work with us to build the types of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City,” the company wrote on its Day One blog.
Since the collapse of the HQ2 project, Amazon’s overall presence has actually expanded with the opening of a distribution center in Woodside. It will open new sites and offices in Hudson Yards, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
But the pullout of HQ2 and what might have been will continue to be debated in 2020 and beyond.
Katz wins narrow Queens DA race
The top political story in Queens this year was the race for Queens district attorney, which concluded with Melinda Katz emerging victorious.
The contest began in January, when longtime Queens DA Richard Brown announced he would step down from the position. Brown, who was the borough’s top prosecutor since 1991, passed away a few months later.
Half a dozen candidates campaigned for the seat, including Katz, former New York Supreme Court Justice Greg Lasak, Councilman Rory Lancman and Tiffany Caban, a public defender and political newcomer who had the backing of the local Democratic Socialists of America.
On the night of the Democratic primary, Caban declared victory with a lead of 1,090 votes. But after the Board of Elections counted some 6,000 paper ballots, Katz went ahead by 15 votes.
Then came the manual recount. BOE workers, under the watchful eye of both campaigns, recounted more than 90,000 ballots, including absentee and affidavit ballots. After the process, Katz wound up with a 60-vote lead over Caban.
Caban’s campaign took the case to Queens Supreme Court, arguing that 114 affidavit ballots were erroneously invalidated and never opened. A judge ruled against opening the ballots, effectively ending Caban’s challenge and her campaign.
After declaring victory a second time, Katz, who had celebrated with supporters after the recount, called for unity.
“It’s time for the Democratic Party to work together,” she said.
Katz had no problem defeating Joe Murray, a conservative Democratic running on the Republican line, in the general election. Her victory means she will leave Borough Hall on December 31, opening the field for another special election to replace her.
With more than half a dozen candidates already vying to take Katz’s spot, the race for borough president will surely dominate headlines in 2020.
Glendale homeless shelter battle ramps up
Queens neighborhoods have fought against the opening of homeless shelter facilities for years, making the issue a mainstay on our top stories list.
In 2014, the city first proposed opening a shelter at a former factory site at 78-16 Cooper Avenue in Glendale. Residents largely rejected the idea, and through lawsuits, got the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to drop the proposal.
But after homeless shelter battles in Maspeth, Ozone Park, College Point and other communities, the spotlight soon turned back to Glendale.
In August, DHS announced that it would convert 78-16 Cooper Avenue into a shelter for 200 adult men in early 2020. It will be run by the Yonkers-based nonprofit Westhab, which will provide onsite services such as job readiness training, job search assistance and access to employment case managers.
DHS will also open a shelter for 132 homeless families at 16-16 Summerfield Street in Ridgewood in late 2020.
The proposal was met with fierce resistance from not only Councilman Robert Holden, who was negotiating with the city to turn the site into a District 75 school for special needs students, but also a coalition of neighborhood activists.
The Glendale-Middle Village Coalition has already filed two lawsuits to halt the city’s plan.
When Community Board 5 hosted a public hearing on the shelter, the majority of the 1,000 residents in attendance angrily denounced it. One community member who spoke went as far as to compare the situation to a “ticking bomb.”
“I hope somebody’s going to burn the place down,” she said.
In November, Holden and a slew of elected officials, along with the coalition, protested in front of the site, vowing to keep fighting the plan.
With the Cooper Avenue shelter slated to open in early 2020, this is a saga that will be important to watch in the new year.
Borough-based jails and future of Rikers Island
New York City took a significant leap toward closing the notorious jail complex at Rikers Island this year.
The City Council voted 36-13 to approve an $8.7 billion plan to build four new borough-based jails intended to replace the facilities on Rikers by 2026.
One of those new jails will be located at 126-02 82nd Avenue in Kew Gardens. Although originally slated to be 27 stories and 270 feet tall, with the capacity to house 1,437 inmates, the jail was negotiated down to 19 stories and 195 feet.
It will have room for 886 inmates and will have separate housing for men and women.
The city’s jail population has declined from 11,000 in 2014 to about 7,000 today. City officials project that it will shrink to around 3,300 by 2026. To ensure that the land on Rikers Island will never be used as a jail again, the City Council also voted for an official map change.
Despite support from the majority of city lawmakers, including Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, many residents and advocates protested against the borough-based jail plan all year.
Some Kew Gardens residents voiced opposition, citing the need to fund other issues like overcrowded schools, public transit and decaying public housing. Others expressed fears that closing the jail on Rikers would result in an increase in crime and homelessness.
The No New Jails coalition, made up of community groups against the jail plan, argued that the multi-billion dollar plan would be better invested directly into communities affected by the criminal justice system. They also called for Rikers Island to be closed immediately.
In the end, legislators supported the ultimate goal of closing Rikers, and approved the plan to build four new jails.
Vietnam veterans conclude decades-long push for memorial
It took more than a decade, but at last the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Elmhurst Park is finally open.
The $2.85 million monument features two semi-closed granite walls around a curved bench. The first wall contains the names of 371 Queens soldiers who fought and died in the Vietnam War.
The second has a timeline of the war and a map of key locations, intended to be educational tools. The memorial and the flagpole will be illuminated at night.
An additional plaque honors the lives of veterans who died from illnesses related to the war. It commemorates the advocacy of Pat Toro, a former president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 32 who first pushed for the memorial back in 2008.
Toro passed away in 2014 from complications related to exposure to Agent Orange.
“Pat’s vision was to have one central, unifying memorial for all of Queens,” said Michael O’Kane, former president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 32. “It was literally his dying wish that this get done.”
“This is bittersweet,” added Evelyn Toro, Pat’s wife and an advocate for the project. “I know he’s looking down and smiling.
Hunters Point Library finally opens, but faces problems
The long-awaited, $41 million Hunters Point Library opened its doors on September 24 to much fanfare.
The 22,000-square-foot, 82-foot-high concrete building with glass cutouts on the sides, situated on the Long Island City waterfront, is the first new branch of the Queens Public Library system since 2007.
It offers a collection of 50,000 books, audio books, magazines, movies, albums and more. The building itself, spanning six levels and a rooftop terrace, includes an adult fiction section, children’s areas, teen area, quiet room, cybercenter, 24/7 return machines and a ground-floor room that can hold up to 140 people.
But almost as soon as it opened, the library faced some glaring problems. Some residents raised the issue of accessibility, given that it only has one elevator to serve the cavernous facility.
Other problems, according to reports, included leaky ceilings, a quiet room that wasn’t soundproof, and cracks on multiple floors.
Given the growing population in Long Island City, the Hunters Point Library will serve more and more children in the years to come. It will be important for the library system to correct the flaws soon.
Port Authority rebuilds LaGuardia and JFK airports
It’s not easy to rebuild an entire airport while handling record volumes of passengers, but the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is pulling off the feat convincingly.
LaGuardia Airport is in the midst of an $8 billion transformation, while John F. Kennedy International Airport will soon undergo a $13 billion rebuild. From new gates and concourses to new roadways, the projects will reshape the way New Yorkers and international visitors alike travel to and from the city.
The Port Authority has also focused on investing in Queens communities impacted by the transformation. From funding scholarships to hiring residents, the agency has emphasized the importance of staying local.
“We are taking very focused and high-priority measures to assure the economic benefits accrue to the Queens neighborhoods around the airports,” said Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton.
By the Port Authority’s count, $1.4 billion in contracts have been awarded to minority and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs), while more than $450 million has gone to Queens-based companies.
In the last round of hiring at new concessions at the new Terminal B concourse, more than half of the jobs went to Queens residents.
On the JFK side, the project’s advisory council has already unveiled major community initiatives, including a jobs recruiting program in southeast Queens and the Rockaways, the creation of a new Office for Second Chance Employment, the funding of a local STEM program and local hiring for food and beverage concessions.
As the transformation projects reach new milestones in the new year, the community will look to ensure the Port Authority keeps their promises of community benefits.
Sunnyside Yard, BQX projects draw scrutiny from activists
Two city-led projects impacting western Queens gained momentum in 2019, but have also faced backlash from anti-gentrification advocates.
In February, the city awarded a $7.25 million contract to the engineering and design consulting firm VHB to conduct an environmental impact study for the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar.
If completed, the BQX would run 11 miles along the waterfront from Astoria to Red Hook. According to current estimates, the trolley is scheduled to break ground in 2024 and be operational by 2029.
Supporters of the project, from public housing leaders to business groups and unions, made their case for the BQX outside City Hall in June. Inside the chambers, City Council members questioned the origins, cost, status and changes to the project, attempting to shed light on the facts of the proposal.
Councilman Costa Constantinides, for example, spoke about the impact of the BQX on the district’s affordability crisis.
“That will only make the challenges in Astoria even greater,” he said.
Similar criticism was levied on the Sunnyside Yard project, the city’s proposal to build a new mixed-use community over a 180-acre railyard. The city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) is in the midst of an 18-month master planning process, which started last May and will wrap up in early 2020.
In September, the EDC’s third public meeting on the project was derailed by protesters, whom expressed their skepticism of the process and called for community-driven planning.
“We need good, truly affordable housing for all and an end to homelessness,” said Patricia Chou, an organizer with Queens Neighborhoods United. “Invest billions to solve these problems, not hyper-gentrify our neighborhoods.”
Cuomo vetoes e-bike, e-scooter legalization bill
Two Queens lawmakers led the push in Albany this year to finally legalize electric bikes and scooters throughout New York.
State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic championed legislation that they said would increase transportation options for New Yorkers.
More importantly, legalizing e-bikes would have meant the end of an NYPD crackdown on immigrant delivery workers who frequently use e-bikes to get around the city.
A coalition of delivery workers, transportation advocates and immigrant rights groups got behind the bill, which passed overwhelmingly and with bipartisan support in the Democrat-controlled state legislature.
Despite passing, the legislation did not go to the governor’s desk for months.
Finally, in the waning days of 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he would veto the bill, largely because of safety concerns. In his veto message, Cuomo said the initial proposal contained safety measures like a helmet requirement, mandatory lights and a lower speed limit, but the bill omitted those requirements.
“Failure to include these basic measures renders this legislation fatally flawed,” he wrote.
Albany will take up the e-bike legislation again in the early days of 2020, with hopes that this time, it will contain enough safety provisions to satisfy the governor’s requirements.
Elmhurst Target developers win legal challenges
Last year, Queens Neighborhoods United scored a major victory when the group successfully campaigned to stop the rezoning of 40-31 82nd Street in Elmhurst.
The developers, Sun Equity Partners and Heskel Group, had planned to convert the site of the former Jackson Heights Cinema into a 13-story, 120-unit mixed-use development with a Target on the ground floor.
That plan was nixed, largely due to pushback from QNU and local elected officials who sided with the activists.
In January, QNU took Target, the Department of Buildings and the developers to court to halt construction altogether, but the court ruled against the group.
QNU also challenged the legality of the Target, which they said did not comply with the zoning code for the lot.
In a June hearing, the Board of Standards and Appeals also ruled in favor of the developers.
State Senator Jessica Ramos said in a statement then that she was disappointed and outraged by the decision.
“This decision sets a dangerous precedent, paving the way for unregulated variety stores to be built in residential neighborhoods throughout the city,” she said, “putting the safety of our communities and infrastructure at risk.”